The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa


Abeba Birhane July 18, 2019

Abeba Birhane is a PhD candidate in Cognitive Science at University College Dublin. Her interdisciplinary research, which intersects between embodied cognition, digital technology studies, and critical data science, explores the dynamic and reciprocal relationships between individuals, society and digital technologies. She is a contributor to Aeon Magazine and blogs regularly about cognition, AI, ethics and data science.

Startups are importing and imposing AI systems founded on individualistic and capitalist drives

The second annual CyFyAfrica 2019 — the Conference on Technology, Innovation, and Society — took place in Tangier, Morocco, in June. It was a vibrant, diverse and dynamic gathering attended by various policymakers, UN delegates, ministers, governments, diplomats, media, tech company representatives, and academics from over 65 nations, mostly African and Asian countries. The conference’s central aim, stated unapologetically, was to bring forth the continent’s voices in the global discourse. The president of Observer Research Foundation (one of the co-hosts of the conference) in their opening message emphasized that the voices of Africa’s youth need to be put front and center as the continent increasingly comes to rely on technology to address its social, educational, health, economic, and financial issues. The conference was intended in part to provide a platform for those young people, and they were afforded that opportunity, along with many Western scholars from various universities and tech developers from industrial and commercial sectors.

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There are already countless die-hard technology worshipers both within and outside the continent who are only too happy to blindly adopt anything “AI,” “smart,” or “data-driven” without a second thought of the possible unintended consequences. Wherever the topic of technological innovation arises, what we typically find is tech advocates offering rationales for attempting to digitize every aspect of life, often at any cost. If the views put forward by many of the participants at CyFyAfrica 2019 are anything to go by, we already have plenty of such tech evangelists in (and outside) Africa, blindly accepting ethically suspect and dangerous practices and applications under the banner of  “innovative,” “disruptive,” and “game changing” with little, if any, criticism or skepticism.

Given that we have enough tech worshipers holding the technological future of the continent in their hands, it is important to point out the cautions that need to be taken and the lessons that need to be learned from other parts of the world. Africa need not go through its own disastrous cautionary tales to discover the dark side of digitization and technologization of every aspect of life.

Data and AI seem to provide quick solutions to complex social problems. And this is exactly where problems arise. Around the world, AI technologies are gradually being integrated into decision-making processes in such areas as insurance, mobile banking, health care and education services. And from all around the African continent, various startups are emerging — e.g. Printivo in Nigeria, Mydawa in Kenya — with the aim of developing the next “cutting edge” app, tool, or system. They collect as much data as possible to analyze, infer and deduce the various behaviors and habits of “users.”

But in the race to build the latest hiring app or state-of-the-art mobile banking system, startups and companies lose sight of the people behind each data point.

The use of technology within the social sphere often, intentionally or accidentally, focuses on punitive practices, whether it is to predict who will commit the next crime or who would fail to pay their mortgage. Constructive and rehabilitative questions such as why people commit crimes in the first place or what can be done to rehabilitate and support those that have come out of prison are almost never asked. Technological developments built and applied with the aim of bringing “security” and “order” often aim to punish and not rehabilitate. Furthermore, such technologies necessarily bring cruel, discriminatory, and inhumane practices to some. The cruel treatment of the Uighurs in China and the unfair disadvantaging of the poor are examples in this regard. Similarly, as cities like Johannesburg and Kampala introduce the use of facial recognition technology, the unfair discrimination and over-policing of minority groups is inevitable.

Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, the central aim of commercial companies developing AI is not to rectify bias generally but to infer the weaknesses and deficiencies of individual “users,” as if people existed only as objects to be manipulated. These firms take it for granted that such “data” automatically belongs to them if they are able to grab it. The discourse around “data mining” and a “data-rich continent” — common language within Africa’s tech scene — shows the extent to which the individual behind each data point remains inconsequential from their perspective.

Behavior-based “personalization” — in other words, the extraction, simplification, and instrumentalization of human experience for capitalist ends, which Shoshana Zuboff details in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism — may seem banal compared with the science fiction threats sometimes associated with AI. However, it is the basis by which people are stripped of their autonomy and are treated as mere raw data for processing. The inferences that algorithmic models of behavior make do not reflect a neutral state of the world or offer any in-depth causal explanations but instead reinscribe strongly held social and historical injustices.

Technology in general is never either neutral or objective; it is a mirror that reflects societal bias, unfairness, and injustice.

As Africa grapples with catching up with the latest technological developments, it must also protect the continent’s most vulnerable people from the consequential harm that technology can cause. Protecting and respecting the rights, freedoms and privacy of the very youth that the leaders of the CyFyAfrica conference want to put at the front and center should be prioritized. This can only happen with guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedom in place in a manner that accounts for local values, contexts and ways of life, as well as through the inclusion of critical voices as an important part of the tech narrative.

The question of technologization and digitalization of the continent is a question of what kind of society we want to live in. African youth solving their own problems means deciding what we want to amplify and show the rest of the world. It also means not importing the latest state-of-the-art machine learning systems or any other AI tools without questioning what the underlying purpose is, who benefits, and who might be disadvantaged by the implementation of such tools.

Moreover, African youth leading the AI space means creating programs and databases that serve various local communities and not blindly importing Western AI systems founded upon individualistic and capitalist drives. It also means scrutinizing the systems we ourselves develop and setting ethical standards that serve specific purposes instead of accepting Western perspectives as the standard. In a continent where much of the narrative is hindered by negative images such as migration, drought, and poverty, using AI to solve our problems ourselves means using AI in a way we want, to understand who we are and how we want to be understood and perceived: a continent where community values triumph and nobody is left behind.

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