Kai-Fu Lee, founder and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, took an Uber to an artificial-intelligence conference at MIT one morning. The driver asked him how long it would take for autonomous vehicles to take away his job. Kai-Fu told him it would happen in about 15 to 20 years. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, I’ll be retired by then,” the driver replied.
Later on, Kai-Fu Lee said if he had been in China and the driver had asked this same question, he would have had to tell him he’d lose his job in about 10 years—maybe 15 if he was lucky.
That might sound surprising, given that the US is, and has been, in the lead in AI research. But China is catching up—if it hasn’t already—and that rivalry, with one nation playing off the other, guarantees that AI is coming. Where then is Africa?
It will soon be obvious that half our tasks can be done better at almost no cost by AI. This will be the fastest transition humankind has experienced, and we’re not ready for it. China will have at least a 50/50 chance of winning the race, and there are several reasons for that.
First, China has a huge army of young people coming into AI. Over the past decade, the number of AI publications by Chinese authors has doubled. Young AI engineers from Face++, a Chinese face-recognition startup, recently won first place in three computer-vision challenges—ahead of teams from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Carnegie Mellon University.
Second, China has more data than the US—way more. Data is what makes AI go. A very good scientist with a ton of data will beat a super scientist with a modest amount of data. China has the most mobile phones and internet users in the world—triple the number in the United States. But the gap is even bigger than that because of the way people in China use their devices. People there carry no cash. They pay all their utility bills with their phones. They can do all their shopping on their phones. You get off work and open an app to order food. By the time you reach home, the food is right there, hot off the electric motorbike. In China, shared bicycles generate 30 terabytes of sensor data in their 50 million paid rides per day—that’s roughly 300 times the data being generated in the US.
Third, Chinese AI companies have passed the copycat phase. Fifteen years ago almost every decent startup in China was simply copying the functionality, look, and feel of products offered in the US. But all that copying taught eager Chinese entrepreneurs how to become good product managers, and now they’re on to the next stage: exceeding their overseas counterparts. Even today, Weibo is better than Twitter. WeChat delivers a way better experience than Facebook Messenger.
With the above-outlined reasons explaining how China and the US will inculcate more AI into daily living by 2028, much is left to be desired from Africa. Mobile Money and Fintech penetration have still not touched the core of the continent though the rate of penetration is high. However, there is a silent fear over AI replacing jobs? If so, does this mean Africa is not necessarily lagging behind as the change to AI isn’t as close as before.