The world has witnessed three revolutions and is currently at the brink of the fourth one. It is evident everywhere that technologies are rapidly emerging and affecting our lives in ways that show that we are at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution (4IR), a brand new era that builds and extends the impact of digitization in new and unanticipated ways. The question is how can African countries key into and fully harness the upcoming revolution.
The 4IR is characterised by the introduction of various technologies such as virtual/augmented realities; nanotechnologies; 3D printing; machine learning; big data; cloud computing, drones, self-driving cars; robotics; artificial intelligence and many of such technologies.
Speaking exclusively to our correspondent at the just concluded Think 2019 Conference convened by IBM, the sixth largest tech company in the world at the San Francisco’s Moscone Center, USA, which drew over 30,000 participants from different continents to deliberate on the potentials of emerging technologies, experts on various projects opined there are enormous opportunities for Africa to deploy emerging technologies to drive various sectors of its economy and promote rapid industrialization.
Most African countries are faced with the risk of decreased farming population due to age; decreased arable land due to climate change; malnutrition and hunger because of low productivity resulting from dependence on poor conventional planting practices which is not effective and efficient.
Speaking during ‘Science slam event’ at the conference, software engineer, IBM Research – Africa, Juliet Mutahi, said her team had come up with an innovation known as “digital double or twins” which would arm farmers with the necessary information to farm effectively and productively and also access funds from financial institutions.
The innovation developed by IBM in partnership with Hello Tractor, a mobile platform that enables farmers rent tractors on demand, to develop an agriculture digital wallet and decision-making platform provides demand and supply visibility for farmers, tractor fleet operators and banks to give farmers the equipment and technology they need to forge sustainable farming.
Mutahi said the innovation would provide solutions to boost Sub Saharan Africa’s food system which forecasts say would be strained by a population that is projected to rise by 1.3 billion by 2050, adding IBM plans to leverage AI, blockchain and the IoT to digitize, optimize and streamline agricultural business processes to create efficiencies and new services from farm to table around the world.
According to her, plans are already underway to scale up the innovation currently going through the pilot phase in Kenya to Nigeria, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania and Bangladesh.
Commenting on how the African continent can benefit from artificial intelligence, IBM’s project manager of Project Debater, Ranit Aharonov, pointed out that IBM’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) School Debater system built to meaningfully debate humans can be replicated in other technologies that can be beneficial to developing countries especially in the education sector.
“Really the goal of the debater, although we developed a system that debates but when you think about the long-term vision, we don’t expect to sell the debater, what we really want to do is set a goal that is far away and use that to develop technologies that can be used in other places. So, in order to debate all you need the debater to do is dive into a lot of data, bring relevant information, be able to listen to opponents and organize its speech. All of these can be used in a lot of applications that have to do with decision making. So, we see the future and we have to take all of that technology and put that to use in more relevant business and application.
“In terms of where this technology can be explored in developing countries, an area that IBM can take this commercially is in education because when you think about what the debater is doing it has to do with critical thinking. In general, I believe debating in schools is a very powerful tool. So, if you have a technology that could augment teachers in teaching how to construct arguments, evaluate argument that could be a very important way it could be used in all countries,” Aharonov said.
While blockchain revolution is currently sweeping through the global space, some African countries have expressed severe reservation and skepticism on blockchain technology describing it as fluid and unpredictable.
However, the general manager, strategy and development, IBM Systems, Jamie Thomas, has called on the African continent to be more open and receptive of the technology, urging the various countries to learn and tap into the enormous potentials of the technology for their economic development.
Reacting to the uncertainty of some African countries about the technology, Thomas assured skeptics of the technology that blockchain which currently powers most banking and airline transactions in the US and other regions is reliable.
“I’d ask them to explore what we’ve done in our cloud because why we put an IBM mainframe behind the security is because that’s the same platform that’s securing all the credit card bank transactions today, all the airline flights around the world typically. So, it’s a very trusted platform and that’s why we use the security for that platform for blockchain so hopefully others could have more trust.
“And again, I think the way blockchain inherently works, it covers a lot of issues that you’ve seen with a lot of electronic interchange mechanisms by creating an immutable ledger that you can’t go back and erase or change,” she added.
Speaking to journalists during media roundtable interviews, the general manager, IBM Watson IoT, Kareem Yusuf said the tech company had gone into major collaborations with Garmin Health, Guardhat, Mitsufuji and SmartCone to monitor workers’ safety in hazardous environments, including those working in construction, mining and factoring using IoT technologies integrated into wearables.
Yusuf said the new offering which is replicable anywhere in the world monitors potential environmental threats to safety and security of employees as they work on the frontlines, pointing out that the solution was designed to help them identify and respond to potential hazards in an effort to keep their workplace safe.
“We talked about a worker having a device on them, many workers have their cellphones. Cellphones can now track some of your biometrics, we can take that data and understand what’s happening at the site, is somebody about to suffer from heat exhaustion. Do we see a productivity mismatch all these can actually be supported by analytics?”
Some African continents still battle with inefficient power supply which results in load shedding or outright power outage. Speaking on how emerging technologies can be deployed to tackle this challenge, Yusuf said deploying IoTs around Africa’s energy sector could aid more effective power distribution and equipment maintenance.
“Think about power and utility, a lot of focus on IoT around energy and utility because of understanding where you have power distribution, what’s the state of your machines. We have generators in Africa today. You can instrument these things, understand the performance profiles and run better maintenance regimens so that you can deliver power more consistently. So, there’s a lot of efforts that go in that regards. So, that’s one real world industrial example that can be adopted anywhere in the world today,” he added.
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