Progressive African economies will need to make coordinated decisions in order to take advantage of the convergence of new information, robotic, and genetic technologies. This means, for a start, double-digit increases in research spending around computing – from coding in primary schools up to industry grants. It also means having a starburst vision of how […]
That has to change. So does the ambition to think deeply about obvious questions such as, say, the fate of the petrol car in African cities in an age of autonomous electric vehicles. All of this has to happen now for the reason that the technologies themselves are combining at dizzying speeds. Slowness, a lack of vision, will result in, at best, the agenda being set for Africa by technology companies, and, at worst, a widening of the digital divide with industrial countries to a rift that cannot be bridged.
The “cloud” is driving convergence. The cost of building it out is considerable at a planetary level. Most of the money is being spent in richer countries. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft will all be among the top ten companies in the world this year in research spending. But the cloud will also be the leading tech trend in Africa this year. Oracle and Huawei say they are experiencing “hyper-growth” in Africa as businesses move their operations to the cloud. The effects will be much more considerable than shifting practice. Whereas steam power (pistons pumping) was the basis of the industrial revolution (and still powers old ships on African lakes), cloud computing promises a near future that is increasingly dematerialised and more highly distributed. Everything moves faster, cheaper, more precisely, and more transparently. What is physical wants to become virtual, and what is virtual demands to manifest itself in the physical world. This tension is felt in the competition for warehousing business between online and shipping companies (companies who control both the cloud and the warehouse, such as Amazon and Alibaba, will likely triumph).
This sounds esoteric, of no account to African development, but that would be to underestimate the interplay between people and machines –and the more so in Africa where resources are limited and legacy infrastructure has yet to be built. General Electric has $2.4 billion of business in Africa in turbines, railway engines, and medical machinery. It wants to add another $1 billion of business in Nigeria by becoming “digital industrial” – meshing its diverse innovations online. But the new world is just as likely to be formed by new consumer technologies as by heavy lifters like GE.
One example is Amazon’s recently released Echo Dot, an AI that accesses the cloud by human voice command, which, while superficially gimmicky and priced for industrial countries, is sure to find its competitors, collapse in price, and, over a decade, optimise consumption of energy, food, goods, and information at the household level in Africa. Understanding the new business models circling around these technologies will be of critical importance to vision plans at the ministerial and boardroom level. This is particularly true for African towns. These are mostly predicted to triple in size exactly as the early AI’s begin to mature. One of the questions that needs to be addressed in 2016 is whether the convergence of technologies can improve the way these towns are built.
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