Let us begin with the great debate that rages on is about singularity. Singularity is the hypothetical point in the future when technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilisation. It is worth noting that singularity (just like electricity) will not happen all at once or over night. There will be a wave of adoption across the globe and over time it will become as pervasive and normal as electricity has become.
As we approach singularity, an important question is, at which point should we panic as Africans? In my head I have a picture. It is an extremely vivid picture of what the world will be like when there will no longer be a line between human capability and computing power as we know it. I have also reflected on many conversations with different people in commerce, technology, humanities and the sciences and I realize that when others think about the fast approaching future, many have a similar picture in their heads as I do.
To be practical about where we are as a continent, we need to reflect on some key realities that will not change. For instance, at this point, we are in the eye of the mobile storm. We live in a mobile era where these devices are extensions of our bodies. The mobile era has created an eternal bridge between the internet era and the information era. The internet is driving an explosion of data and services that feed the distribution and availability of information. We also have phenomenal social, economic and structural problems that we NEED to solve as a continent. According to the Human Development Index by the UNDP Africa is still the lowest ranking continent regarding factors like healthy long living, Quality of education and knowledge acquisition and standard of living.
There is an irony of having extremely important problems to solve at the same time as we are entering the 4th industrial revolution, the era where virtually anything is possible. This irony is that the overwhelming volume of problems to fix can create a crippling inertia about where exactly to begin. The temptation is to try and boil the ocean and solve EVERYTHING and we know this is not possible, nor is it sustainable, so let us focus on three core problems and we can match the technology to provide a sustainable, impactful solution in the fourth industrial revolution.
Land Rights . The Berlin Conference in 1884-85 also known as the Congo conference left Africa in a state of geographic ruin and land rights were used to segregate and colonize our continent. It was a game being played around Africans and one may argue that the game continues to be played.Property rights are the most fundamental institution in any economy and society. They determine who makes decisions about valuable resources and who captures the economic gains from those decisions; they mold the distribution of income, wealth, and political influence; they set time horizons and investment incentives; and they define who will take part in markets. These attributes are well recognized among economists for spurring economic growth. Now, if we consider for a moment that since 1848 Africans have not been able to participate, what would the impact on land reform be if we were to use technology like the BlockChain ? It means that we would be able to reverse and amend a secure log of historic and present land allocations and transactions that can be traced back from a lineage perspective. Not only does this start to fix the wrongs of the past, it begins a systematic process of restoring dignity to Africans by re-allocating ancestral land.
Genetic Engineering . Africa has endured wars and human atrocities that have altered the genetic make up of many generations of Africans forever. This is true to the extent that there is even a phrase that refers to the “ African Gene ”. According to an article by Michael White , he states “Our genetic make-up is the result of history. Historical events that influenced the patterns of migration and mating among our ancestors are reflected in our DNA — in our genetic relationships with each other and in our genetic risks for disease. This means that, to understand how genes affect our biology, geneticists often find it important to tease out how historical drivers of demographic change shaped present-day genetics.” Now, for a second, just Imagine technology like CRISPR that was able to start reversing some of these genetic mutations that began in the age of slavery. Now, such an extreme solution is important, but I also acknowledge that there are other, more fundamental challenges with delivering even basic health care.
Quality Data Availability – The data gap is a systemic but crucial problem that we need to find solutions for. According to and article by Donatien Beguy (Head of Statistics and Surveys Unit (SSU), African Population and Health Research Center) “Data, and especially data of good quality, are essential for national governments and institutions to accurately plan, fund and evaluate development activities.” It is difficult to comprehend that in a continent with such a young, connected population we cannot make use of mobile devices to solve the problem of data availability. Imagine if we could create a network of Micro Data Collection Businesses the same as the vendors that sell airtime vouchers. The creation of a decentralized network of vendors collecting data on the bottom of the pyramid consumers not only solves an important gap in quality data availability, it also allows economic opportunity.
To keep finding solutions in Africa, we have to approach problem solving from First principles and if we break down a problem into smaller more specific components, it is easier to solve for the bigger problem. It will not be technology alone that will allow us to respond to the fourth industrial revolution.
It will be a combination of empathetic leaders, keen problem solvers and astute technologists that will collectively unlock value. In my very optimistic view, there is no need to run for the hills because human beings still have a critical part to play in the fourth industrial revolution. Our ability to use common sense to reason, empathy to feel and creativity to explore still makes us very valuable in the fourth industrial revolution.