Illustrations: Jordan Moss

Africa Is Building an A.I. Industry That Doesn’t Look Like Silicon Valley

Researchers want to pave their own path. But the growing industry is still dependent on tech giants like Google and Microsoft.

Dave Gershgorn
Published in
9 min readSep 25, 2019

--

InIn late August, under the shade of an arching pepper tree in Nairobi, Kenya, hundreds of A.I. researchers gossiped about their algorithms. Some stood in front of posters, which wound around the tree’s sprawling roots, depicting machine learning systems that promised to predict everything from soil nutrition, to whether a small-scale farmer would repay a loan, to how a self-driving car might navigate the bustling streets of Cairo.

Over the last three years, academics and industry researchers from around the African continent have begun sketching the future of their own A.I. industry at a conference called Deep Learning Indaba. The conference brings together hundreds of researchers from more than 40 African countries to present their work, and discuss everything from natural language processing to A.I. ethics.

Founded in 2017, Indaba is a direct response to Western academic conferences, which are often difficult for researchers from distant parts of the world to access. Take, for instance, the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, the most well-known meeting dedicated to artificial neural networks. NeurIPS — originally referred to as NIPS until the community overwhelmingly asked for a less nipple-oriented acronym — has previously been held in distant and expensive resorts. It doubles as a kind of vacation for researchers who can afford it. In 2006 and 2007, it was at the Westin Resort and Spa, and Hilton Resort and Spa in Whistler, B.C, to allow for “informal discussions, skiing, and other winter sports.”

For researchers from Africa, NeurIPS is often just out of reach. In 2016, no papers from African countries were accepted into the conference. In 2018, more than 100 researchers were denied visas to enter Canada for NeurIPS.

We need to find a way to build African machine learning in our image.

So in 2017, former classmates from South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand and a few close colleagues came together…

--

--

Dave Gershgorn
OneZero

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.