Creating Awareness for Artificial Intelligence in Liberia

It often pains me to say that Liberia has a traditional tendency to play catch-up when it comes to adopting Information and Communications Technologies ( ICTs).

Incontrovertibly, this “tendency” of late adoption is a result of past and existing national social and economic challenges. Yet, it is safe to say that Liberia is not the only country in the sub-region and elsewhere with this unfortunate “tendency.” It is just that ours seem to be a bit worse than others. Can this unfortunate "tendency” be changed?

Of course, it can. We can change this entire phenomenon by first embracing the fact that ICTs have become the bedrock of economic development, and that adopting them could sooner leapfrog our social and economic development than we know. 

That being said there is a trending technology that has the potential to change Liberia and of course, the world; and it is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Ostensibly, the world is moving toward or has moved toward AI, and as it appears, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) which has begun, will be driven by AI and other technologies.

So that we are not left behind again, it is only prudent if not proactive, to begin initiatives that would enable us to join the AI bandwagon and reap its benefits sooner than later, as we have always done (late adoption). The first initiative would be to create awareness for AI in Liberia. So, today’s article begins that initiative by providing some insights into AI in hopes that, as time goes by, the greater population will garner an appreciable understanding of AI, its benefits, challenges, and perhaps, its potential dangers. 

So, let’s begin by defining Artificial Intelligence or AI. The term Artificial Intelligence (AI) was coined by scientist John McCarthy at Dartmouth College in 1956. A definition culled from the internet puts AI as, “a wide-ranging branch of computer science concerned with building smart machines capable of performing tasks that typically require human intelligence.”

Another website defines AI as a term that refers to “machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment, and intention.” But a more simplistic definition of AI (in my opinion) is “the ability of a computer or a robot controlled by a computer to do tasks that are usually done by humans because they require human intelligence and discernment.” All of these definitions imply one thing; that AI involves systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from experience. 

Forbes.Com lists seven types of AI: Reactive Machines, Limited Memory, Theory of Mind, Self-Awareness, Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), and Artificial Superintelligence (ASI). Some examples of AI include Siri, Alexa, and other smart assistants, Self-driving cars, Robo-advisors, Conversational bots, Email spam filters, and Netflix's recommendations. AI is also found in applications as diverse as medical diagnosis, computer search engines, and voice or handwriting recognition applications. 

A commonly used AI technology in academia is Grammarly. “Grammarly is an AI-enabled writing assistant that helps writers and communicators all over the world with spelling, grammar, and conciseness.” When installed as a browser plugin, Grammarly checks over content being written in real-time and alerts for everything from spelling mistakes to tone errors and even scans content for plagiarism. A lot of our professors and instructors at the University of Liberia and other academic institutions in Liberia are now using Grammarly, without knowing that it is a form of AI. 

Over the years, AI has illustrated exponential growth in computing capacity, the development of more sophisticated algorithms, and burgeoning data in what is now an information society. The fact that AI is rapidly accelerating and forging new paths in almost all major industries, impacting all aspects of our lives, makes it a powerful and promising technology. And AI promises to provide human-like capabilities in software efficiently at a lower cost, which makes it ideal for developing countries like Liberia. 

AI and other emerging technologies are driving the 4IR. Many developed countries and a few developing countries in Africa, including Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Egypt, Mauritius, and South Africa, have begun engaging, if not adopting AI. Those sectors that are expected to see the most growth in demand for AI applications over the coming years include health, commercial enterprises, financial services, cybersecurity, legal services, and education. 

Already there are start-ups in Ghana and Nigeria that are addressing doctor shortages and the lack of medical access for rural Africans. They have begun to use AI to empower doctors and leverage growing mobile phone ownership as a vehicle for collecting data, improving administrative efficiency, and expanding treatment coverage. In Kenya and Nigeria, AI-focused start-ups have begun working on agricultural planning, reducing financial transaction costs, and improving public transportation access and efficiency. 

In Liberia, for the past two months, we have been engaged in AI activities at the policy level, as well as the legal aspects of AI (AI designed for the Judiciary). These engagements buttress previous knowledge garnered from college and other scholastic and professional initiatives. A few months, I was selected by the US State Department to participate in the  AI Connect Program, which is focused on the general policy landscape as well as various frameworks that address the responsible use and development of AI globally.

AI Connect fosters an exclusive community of government officials, academics, and private sector stakeholders from around the world with a vested interest in advancing responsible AI technologies. In collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, the program is implemented by the Atlantic Council GeoTech Center, which studies how technology can be used for the benefit of society and assesses the connections between technology and geopolitics.

While the prospects and unprecedented advancements of AI are set to impact developing countries like Liberia, we cannot shy away from our traditional challenges. These include problems around universal access to electricity and the internet, the lack of technical expertise, issues with funding AI-related education, activities, and research, and the lack of legal and regulatory instruments, just to name a few. One of the most prominent challenges is the lack of quality education in AI and related fields. In Liberia, some efforts are being made to build AI capacity. The University of Liberia’s newly created Department of Computer and Information Sciences (DCIS) offers a course in AI and a concentration in Data Science (of relevance to AI). A few other tertiary institutions, I am told, are heading in that direction as well. 

Despite the above-mentioned development, more need to be done to create awareness and build our capacity for AI, so that we are positioned to leverage it (AI) for economic development. Government and other stakeholders (private sector, funding partners, international organizations, etc.) should provide support for this initiative. The focus should be placed on creating awareness and building capacity that would lead to a responsible adoption of AI (AI development and deployment) in Liberia to leapfrog social and economic development.