'Ghana is the future of Africa': Why Google built an AI lab in Accra
"Google is just a giant scientific research company that happens to make money," this was my first impression when I visited their offices in Mountain View for the first time.Posted — Updated
I was not wrong, a lot of what Google does is to push the boundaries of human knowledge through research and discovery.
It is that curiosity that has led them to create some of the most widely used technology platforms in the world today and also made them the custodian of most of the data about almost anything in the world.
Google has also now declared itself an "Artificial Intelligence first," company and that statement is potentially going to change everything we know fundamentally. It will almost certainly change how we live.
This change will also resonate for us in Africa; Google just recently announced that Africa is getting a Google Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and that is just the beginning. The lab will be run by Moustapha Cisse, a Senegalese AI champion and expert.
Why is Africa Dark?
It was 2010 at the annual GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and Eric Schmidt the former CEO and Chairman of Google was presenting his keynote where he was proudly talking of the growth of Android, Google's new mobile operating system at that time.
He had a slide on the screen with lights showing the level of Android activations globally, but on that slide Africa was dark. Someone in the audience asked; "Why is Africa dark?"
Someone else repeated a similar question at another presentation during Google's annual developer event in San Francisco in 2013. The presenter was talking about Google's Cloud Platform, and once again there was a global map where Africa was blank.
The question also came up -- "What happened to Africa?"
Google didn't seem to have any activity in Africa from both maps, but the illustrations were wrong. They were already active in Africa, but they decided to take a different route.
Google opted to strengthen the educational institutions by providing infrastructure and software, then from those institutions build technology communities which have now come of age.
There are hardly any young software developers you would meet in any of the major African countries who have not been part of or somewhat influenced by Google's university-based Developer Groups.
At the Barcelona keynote, someone also asked Eric Schmidt a question about plans for Africa and especially Nigeria?
With surprising accuracy for the CEO of a global technology company, he highlighted the issues with infrastructure and last-mile connectivity hampering growth and expansion of Internet technology into Africa.
Google was not ignoring Africa; they were trying to figure out a solution.
The solution has now come in many forms; massive infrastructure projects, digital skills training for millions, investments into the African startup ecosystem and most recently the announcement of an Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Accra, Ghana.
The question everyone was asking after Jeff Dean (the Google AI and Google Brain team lead) announced that Google AI Lab was coming to Accra was "Why Ghana?"
The answer to that has been clear for a while now but has eluded most people.
When Barrack Obama decided to visit Ghana as the first African country during his Presidency, it was the same question most people asked - "Why Ghana?"
The answer is simple; Ghana is the future of Africa.
When I decided to move away from Nigeria to Ghana almost a decade ago, most people could not understand why because they had not visited Ghana, I did and I fell in love, literally.
I married a Fanti woman. I had already fallen for the country before I met my wife because the place was different.
It didn't have the hardcore market edge of places like Nigeria and South Africa, but it was a place where I could live and work.
Ghana has relatively stable electricity, relative security, and decent internet infrastructure. It also has some of the best tourist destinations in the developing world. All of this is present without any hype. I moved our business there and didn't look back ever since.
This choice is in spite of the challenges the country has gone through in recent times. I have remained and will continue to do so.
Google probably, however, has different reasons for choosing Ghana, and Jeff Dean tried to explain that it had to do with the robust network of academic institutions as well as infrastructure.
Google has been a significant investor in strengthening those institutions and the infrastructure around it.
An Alphabet Subsidiary named CSquared spun out of Google has quietly been laying an extensive fiber optic backbone in Accra and Kampala to help solve the last-mile internet problem that Eric Schmidt mentioned in Barcelona.
The internet speeds I get in the office and at home in Accra are now comparable with California speeds.
Ghana has also become a melting pot for education in the sub-region over the years because of the relative stability of the country and the high standards of its institutions, such as the highly-regarded Ashesi University.
The foundations of Ghanaian education are about the strongest in the region. It is not uncommon to see people from non-English speaking countries traveling to Ghana to learn English and for their education.
There is also a steady education pipeline between Nigeria and Ghana, in spite of historical ups and downs between both countries.
Faced with a declining education system in their country, many Nigerian parents are opting to send their children to school in Ghana.
Building African talent is one of Ghana's strongest points, and its central location also makes it a great business hub for those who want to expand to Francophone Africa and Africa's largest market - Nigeria.
The proximity to Nigeria yet relative sanity and organization are the main reasons why I moved.
Lagos is just an hour away.
Why Artificial Intelligence in Africa?
Africa's global reputation has suffered over the years for many reasons. Hunger, famine disease, poverty, and foreign aid are things that are typically associated with Africa in people's minds in other continents.
The consistency of conflicts and lousy leadership has also not helped. Artificial Intelligence in Africa seems to be an oxymoron in this context, but Africa is the last frontier.
Africa probably has more secrets about humanity than anywhere else in the world, and it is those secrets that "computer programming that learns and adapts" (which is how Google describes AI) can help to uncover.
Interestingly, some of the best AI talent in the world is already of African origin. They are either working on applied AI projects right from Africa or many other developed markets.
One of those people is Omoju Miller, who has a Ph.D. in Cognition and Study and works at GitHub in San Francisco.
According to Miller: "The African context is very different from Mountain View or Zurich. The kinds of innovation Africa needs is similar to the innovative practices we have seen coming out of China, companies like Alibaba and Ant financial," she said.
"These are companies that are responsible for inventing entire markets that serve the world. That is the kind of innovative thinking we need in Africa. Google AI can play a role in helping us get there," Miller added.
Miller is right; China is not sleeping on AI either. The highest usage of Google's Open source Machine Learning libraries globally come from China.
A lot of innovations are also now being built there with the help of Machine Learning. Artificial intelligence and Machine Learning will not just open up markets but also help to create new ones.
Eric Schmidt in a recent talk mentioned that majority market share models are now much more possible with AI.
It is now Africa's turn to do what China has done. The "African Context" when added to Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence has the potential of bringing up new solutions for humanity and create new markets.
Google is helping us get there by giving us their full support.
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