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Nigeria should brace up for Artificial Intelligence

Nowadays, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become the unmistakable and ubiquitous buzz term not just in the global technology sector, but in...

Nowadays, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become the unmistakable and ubiquitous buzz term not just in the global technology sector, but in virtually everything we do. It is a new branch of the computer age which by estimation and expectation of experts will revolutionise every aspect of the way we live from one end of the world to another.

Indeed so exponential is AI in our modern world that some have called it the fourth industrial revolution.

Essentially, AI combines the mathematical algorithms of the computer and the communicational networks and reach of the internet to order our needs and organise our lives and livelihoods in ways that we have never done before. If fully developed and deployed, AI can revolutionise our healthcare system, agriculture, transportation, education and financial services, among others.

For instance, AI can be used for purposes of keeping health records, medical diagnosis, telemedicine and detecting early signs that could lead to birth asphyxiation and brain injury both of which are prominent causes of infant mortality. In the financial services sector, AI can be used by customers to send money, pay bills, make purchases and check account balances. It can also be deployed in other areas.

Although AI is relatively new in Nigeria, reports indicate that the technology is catching on rapidly. A report by Tech Cabal, a platform dedicated to covering AI issues, stated that since the launch of the first AI-focussed Hub at the University of Lagos by Data Science Nigeria, some AI start-up companies have come up. Prominent among these are Helium, Brainhub, Aajoh, Ubenwa, etc.

Seeing the potential in Nigeria’s AI development, global technology companies like Google and Facebook have shown interest in partnering with Nigerian companies in this endeavour.  In this regard, Facebook with its AI set-up in Nigeria, NG_Hub, is in partnership with ccHub, a Nigerian AI tech start-up company to grow Nigeria’s AI sector.  

Already, in anticipation of the inevitable coming of AI, some countries around the world have committed huge resources to retool their technology sectors as well as society in general to cope. The wide areas being addressed by these countries range from equipment manufacture and deployment, research and development, collaboration, orientation and training, regulation and compliance, quality control and assurance.

As the world is embracing the reality of AI and making efforts to adapt to it, it is a matter of concern that Africa and Nigeria in particular seems to be lagging in taking the necessary measures to implement an AI policy strategy.  

In Nigeria, pertaining to AI, two major questions arise; does Nigeria have the technical infrastructure necessary to implement AI? Secondly, do we have a regulatory framework for AI operations?

It is hardly encouraging to note that as yet Nigeria has not put up a comprehensive policy document on AI to guide its development and deployment in the country.

We are concerned that leaving the issue of AI to just private sector players as is the case currently will open the sector to avoidable risks such as cyber-attacks, data breaches, deep fakes, bias and discrimination and other forms of cyber criminality.

We note that the Nigeria Communication Commission, NCC, which is the apex regulatory body of the telecommunications sector has within the past couple of months woken up to the concerns raised on the issue of the continuous lack of comprehensive regulatory framework on AI in the country. Recently, NCC on its website reported that it had initiated a study on AI and its potential impact on Nigeria’s sectors which aims to provide policymakers with insights into the opportunities and challenges of AI and to make recommendations on how government can provide regulatory interventions. Specifically, NCC noted in its research findings that, “As the science and advancement AI develops, smart technologies are being deployed which will have profound consequences for ethical, psychological, social, economic and legal consequences for human society and our planet….This raises concerns that agents could in the future take unwanted actions that result in dire consequences.’’  

The AI agents here refer to such technology devices as robots, drones, cloned agents, applications and programmes that can substitute human thinking and action in doing the things we normally do. There is a real danger that if we come to rely solely on AI to organise and action our needs, we may lay ourselves open to devastating consequences of glitches that oftentimes occur with innovatory devices designed to replace human activity.

Similarly, the National Information Technology Development Agency NITDA has also commenced drafting a code of practice for AI tools which is necessary. Its spokesperson, Mrs Hadiza Umar, stated that drafting Nigeria’s code of practice was, “to ensure responsible and ethical deployment which will mitigate the growing risk around the technology.” Although commendable, these efforts do not in themselves constitute the comprehensive policy that is required to properly position AI operations and regulation in Nigeria. For these to be effective, there needs to be synergy and coordination within the context of a comprehensive legal framework covered by the law.

Accordingly, we call on the Tinubu administration as well as the National Assembly to work together to provide the country with enabling laws that would regulate the implementation of AI laws. This issue must be treated with the seriousness it deserves.