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Software companies, startups should embrace AI and research

Forbes magazine listed software development as the hottest skill for 2024. Most IT companies and startups in Nigeria are predominantly focused on software development, with…

Forbes magazine listed software development as the hottest skill for 2024. Most IT companies and startups in Nigeria are predominantly focused on software development, with hardware startups being a rarity. The IT companies and startups in Nigeria are overwhelmingly involved in developing different types of software, ranging from websites and applications to specialised software for accounting, education, hotel management, transportation, and other industries. The success and sustainability of startups hinges on the innovations they introduce. The development of software has become significantly easier, especially with the advent of AI models that can generate code from natural language descriptions of software requirements.

In the past, writing a programme was a tedious and time-consuming task. However, advancements in AI have simplified the software development process, making it more accessible and efficient because of the automation of the processes. This shift has enabled tech giants to rapidly prototype and deploy their solutions, fostering innovation and growth in the tech ecosystem.  For businesses looking to leverage these advancements, understanding how to pick a software development agency is crucial to ensure they partner with the right experts to meet their specific needs and objectives.

Nigerian software companies and startups must prioritise integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) and investing in research and development (R&D) without delay. The global tech landscape is rapidly evolving, and to remain competitive, companies and startups need to harness the power of AI and stay at the forefront of innovation. If Nigerian software companies and startups don’t take action now, they may wake up one day to discover that their products have been overshadowed by a single AI model, this is in view of the fact that hundreds of software ventures are currently under threat of extinction from large AI models.

Almost every aspect of the software development lifecycle has been automated, including requirement elicitation, coding, testing, build, deployment, operation, and monitoring. Among these, coding remains the core aspect of software development and has received significant attention for automation. As I write this article, many AI models have been developed to generate source code from natural language descriptions. These models are capable of improving existing code, code review, debugging, and more. Some notable AI models that generate source code from natural language descriptions include GPT-NeoX, CodeT5+, CodeGen-Mono, CodeGeeX, BLOOM, SantaCoder, PyCodeGPT, PanGu-Coder, PaLM-Coder, InCoder, CodeGen, LaMDA, CodeParrot, GPT-CC, GPT-J, GPT-C, Codex, CodeRL, CodeT5Mix, ERNIE-Code, AlphaCode, PLBERT, and PyMT5.

Despite the impressive capabilities of these AI models across different programming languages, they do have inherent limitations, such as perplexity and hallucination. Therefore, the code generated by these AI models must be carefully scrutinised by human programmers to ensure it meets the expected requirements and standards. Software development typically begins with requirement elicitation, the process of gathering and documenting the needs and expectations of stakeholders. IBM Engineering Requirements Quality Assistant is an AI automation tool designed to refine requirements, enhancing their clarity and quality. Similarly, Azure DevOps and Jira are automation tools capable of performing similar functions, aiding in software project planning and requirement tracking.

The issue of software security is paramount in today’s digital landscape. Different AI models have been developed to address this concern. For instance, OpenAI’s Codex utilizes AI to detect vulnerabilities in software code, helping developers identify and rectify potential security flaws. Additionally, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) employs Semmle QL, a powerful code analysis tool, for identifying vulnerabilities in source code, further bolstering software security measures.

Flourishing as a startup and growing into a tech giant that competes globally is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without significant investment in R&D. Companies like Microsoft, Google, Meta, and Yahoo all started small as startups but invested heavily in R&D to achieve their current status.

Unfortunately, many startups in Nigeria do not seem to prioritize R&D, with only a few recognising its importance. Once a startup is established, the next crucial step is to seek out relevant researchers for consultation. Even if the startup cannot afford to hire these researchers due to financial constraints, engaging them as consultants can provide invaluable insights.

Researchers stay updated with the latest developments in their fields, which can guide the startup towards innovation and future growth. For instance, if a software startup launches in Nigeria, it should identify and engage with an active researcher specialising in software development. This researcher from a Nigerian institution should have a proven track record of high-profile publications. By consulting with such a researcher, the startup can stay informed about new developments, innovative directions, and future trends in software development. To find a suitable researcher, startups can utilise databases like Scopus, which house records of scholars, their publications, and institutional affiliations. By searching for relevant researchers in Scopus database from Nigerian institutions, startups can find contact information and reach out to these experts for collaboration. This strategic move can significantly enhance the startup’s capacity for innovation and competitive growth. 

As the startup grows and attains financial stability, it should establish a dedicated R&D unit. This involves hiring relevant researchers to work exclusively for the company, allowing these experts to fully dedicate their efforts to advancing the company’s goals. With an in-house R&D unit, the company can strategically direct research initiatives that align with its long-term vision and objectives.

All the tech giants previously mentioned—Microsoft, Google, Meta, and Yahoo—have robust R&D units that are pivotal to their success. R&D is the backbone of any tech giant, driving innovation and maintaining a competitive edge in the tech world. For example, recognising the crucial significance of research, it was reported that the owner of Facebook (now Meta) personally sent emails to Google AI researchers in an effort to entice them to switch to Meta. This highlights the intense competition for top research talent and the value placed on R&D by leading tech companies.

In addition to establishing an R&D unit, startups should continuously foster a culture of innovation. This includes staying abreast of technological trends, encouraging creative problem-solving, and investing in cutting-edge research projects. Collaborating with academic institutions, attending industry conferences, and participating in tech incubators can further enhance the startup’s R&D capabilities. Moreover, as the R&D unit matures, it should focus on both short-term and long-term projects. Short-term projects can lead to immediate product improvements and market gains, while long-term projects can explore disruptive technologies and future market opportunities. By balancing these efforts, the startup can ensure sustained growth and adaptability in a rapidly evolving tech landscape.                         

Nigerian software startups must act swiftly to integrate AI and prioritize R&D. By doing so, they can ensure long-term success, remain competitive on a global scale, and contribute significantly to the technological advancement of Nigeria.

 

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