The match of science and technology is a relentless one. And its transformative power has been profound. Most of the wealth created in the past fifty years in the developed world has been traced to science and technology. While we quickly notice the richest companies in the world like Apple, Google , Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and several others as the warriors of this match, their profound effect on productivity has created more wealth for the world than it created for the companies. They have also in the process completely transformed the world.
But what is to come is even more than what has happened. If you appreciated how email, instant messaging, internet, social media, the PC, the smartphone all came together to change the way we live and work, then imagine the future that is coming. Man has always craved extra intelligence and to create intelligent machines. It’s been written in books for generations, predicted by futurist and scientists, made into movies for decades. But finally, we are (almost) there. All over the world, scientists, engineers, programmers, venture capitalist and governments are in a new race to augment natural intelligence. It is called Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the creation of intelligence that will match the intelligence that man was given during creation and evolution.
You cannot miss the excitement in technology community and the worry and apprehension of those who regulate the world. We are getting into uncharted territory. What will become of the world we have known and gotten used to when we create intelligence? What will be the manifestation of this intelligence? How will the world fight wars, define sovereignty and national security in an age of artificial intelligence? What will be the effect of AI on productivity, health, leisure, recreation and work; on the entire human experience and our relationship with God? Artificial intelligence promises to be an uncertain ride into the future we have to navigate as the perennial clash between science and civilization escalates.
But like all such strides since the first industrial revolution, there will be consequences for nations and societies that have not prepared themselves for the age in which science and technology form the primary fabric of the society.
Take Nigeria for example. Nigeria has not really benefited from the boom created by technology in the past 50 years. Look at any of the tech milestones of the past era. The PC era ushered in by Microsoft, IBM and Apple did not really benefit Nigeria. We were not ready for it. While Microsoft and IBM co-visioned a world in which every human being had personal computer, in Nigeria, that vision could not be. It took the evolution of mobile technology and the advent of the smartphone to allow Nigeria and other third world countries to finally get access to the internet and the benefits that came with it. But the revolution it has brought to education, health, productivity and quality of life has been mostly absent for most of Nigeria. Our health system has not improved. Our educational system has decayed. Our infrastructure overall has degraded.
There are patches of benefits here and there but overall, we have lost in the race to use these technologies to advance our civilization and build wealth for our citizens. Countries like India, China and some in Africa have latched on to the technology culture to pull millions out of poverty.
Age of Intelligence
The foundation that will allow AI has building blocks that have layered on each other for decades: computer processing power, faster and pervasive internet connection, data storage, cloud computing and progressive policies around data sovereignty, security and safe and collaborative use of technology. The second industrial revolution was enabled by the successes and failures of the 1st; the 3rd on the 1st and 2nd. The 4th will take all the successes of the previous ones and build on it. That’s the way the world makes progress.
The Nigerian tech community is obviously excited like their peers globally. I am excited for the world; by the progress of science but not excited for Nigeria. I feel mostly pity for us as a nation and for my colleagues in the tech industry. I think their excitement is misplaced and will be shattered by experience. Not that the technology will not berth here. AI will come to Nigeria. In fact, it is already here. I use it when I open my smartphone; when I use applications that have bots on my laptop. In the near future I will possibly fly smart planes and drive smart and intelligent cars. But that will be it. I fear that the foundation that will make it pervasive has not been built.
Some say that like mobile technology which allowed us to leapfrog the loss of the earlier era of wired telephones, some of the new technology will allow us get into the 4th industrial revolution without the foundations laid by the earlier revolutions.
I disagree. The 4th industrial revolution that will be driven by artificial intelligence did not come out of the blues. It layers on the progress of earlier revolutions starting from the steam engine of the 1st revolution. And sadly, Nigeria and most of the poor countries in Africa are not about to be given free tickets into the 4th industrial revolution after missing out on the preceding ones. In Nigeria, we are still battling to install electricity for the vast majority of Nigerians. Electricity was part of the 1st industrial revolution. Our government does not have secure mail, a key part of the 3rd industrial revolution. We have missed the revolution that has happened in health, education, all key foundations of leapfrogging into the 21st century. We have been unable to count ourselves and build the national data that can really create a culture of data collection and usage, again part of the building block for the promise of intelligence. How can you really hope for extra intelligence when you fail at basic intelligence?
The prognosis is not good. While there will be flashes of intelligence among us as this age comes upon us, we will mostly be observers, admirers and at best, peripheral users. Our citizens will integrate into other societies and excel in science and technology and we will celebrate them gleefully, to tell ourselves that we can be like others. And sometimes, something great will happen locally that will show the possibilities of what we could have been. These will be exceptions; the lone wolves. But what’s the effect of one lone wolf in the sea of global intelligence?
Betting on the 5TH Industrial Revolution
What if we make a bet to join the 5th or 6th industrialist revolution – perhaps the age of machines? Or the age we migrate to Mars? What can we do now to give us a fighting chance to become part of the global culture that will be driven by periodic revolutions and continuous advancements?
First, we must take our education system more serious. People talk of STEM education. But I say education. Science and Technology education is really important. But you cannot build a world on science alone. Our education must work as a tool for national aspiration; as a foundation for rebuilding our battered institutions; as a gateway to building the leadership, we need for tomorrow. The failure of our educational system means that even Nigerians human intelligence is totally underutilized. Will artificial intelligence enhance underutilized intelligence?
A Revolution in Education Required
We must as a matter of urgency guarantee every Nigerian born henceforth good and quality education from kindergarten to the end of high school and reform the rules that govern the creating of higher institutions to make it easy for individuals and organisations to set up universities and other institutions of higher learning. Education technology has liberalized university education with Nigerians studying online – mostly frees or subsidized from global institutions. This is while our national education regulators are in self-denial and using a 20th century mindset to regulate 21st century university education. The Government must make it easy for Nigerians to get a higher education online like it is to get the one offered by universities and institutions all over the globe.
And this must start now. Other nations are laying the foundation for the 5th industrial revolution that will happen in the decades to come as I write. The thinking that time is waiting for Nigeria is a fallacy. The longer it takes for us to start on this path, the harder it becomes. Because no one is waiting and the pace of change is accelerating. We must save Nigeria from entering a future in which its citizens are disconnected from a progressive world. The consequence is already grave and will get worse as our population explodes without the support of the extra intelligence that the rest of the world will come to depend on.
Meanwhile in the 4th Industrial Revolution
How can we still make the best of the situation in the 4th Industrial Revolution? And get AI working for us as a country? I am not advocating that we fold our arms and wave a white flag of defeat, on the contrary. The Nigerian tech industry is really small but growing fast. What it lacks in size though, it makes up for in energy and some pomp. You would think, based on the narrative about the industry, it was one of the biggest contributors to the economy. It is not. But there is something going for the industry, that despite its size, it manages to get its message across. The industry has to, however, turn this star power into the right advocacy and lobbying and raising its voice in national conversations. Tech is eating up every industry.
Building capacity for lobbying and policy making in collaboration with other industries will position tech as a key policy for the reform of the Nigerian economy. That would help create the momentum for adoption of technologies like AI in a widespread manner. Only then can we hope for a chance to join the AI conversation.
Under the right guidance, Nigeria can aspire to join the next industrial revolution. And even have a play in the current one. In the process it will build a nation whose citizens can aspire to be the best in world. And join a future that will be led by educated humans, supported by intelligent machines.
Collins Onuegbu is the founder of Signal Alliance and a director at Lagos Angels Network (LAN).
Tags: Industrial Revolution