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The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa


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In the web magazine Real Life, Abeba Birhane writes that many European and US tech companies view Africa as an untapped gold mine. The continent’s comparatively underdeveloped medical, transportation, and business infrastructures make it ripe for the AI-driven, quick-fix technologies now being offered by many Silicon Valley companies. But as Birhane shows, there has been too little debate within Africa about the political and ethical implications of these technologies, with many assuming that they are inherently good for the continent’s development. Allowed to spread unchecked, these technologies threaten to exacerbate Africa’s existing inequalities, both within African countries and between Africa and the rest of the world. Check out an excerpt from Birhane’s piece below.

Data and AI seem to provide quick solutions to complex social problems. And this is exactly where problems arise. Around the world, AI technologies are gradually being integrated into decision-making processes in such areas as insurance, mobile banking, health care and education services. And from all around the African continent, various startups are emerging — e.g. Printivo in Nigeria, Mydawa in Kenya — with the aim of developing the next “cutting edge” app, tool, or system. They collect as much data as possible to analyze, infer and deduce the various behaviors and habits of “users.”

But in the race to build the latest hiring app or state-of-the-art mobile banking system, startups and companies lose sight of the people behind each data point. “Data” is treated as something that is up for grabs, something that uncontestedly belongs to tech companies and governments, completely erasing individuals. This makes it easy to “manipulate behavior” or “nudge” people, often toward profitable outcomes for the companies and not the individuals. As “nudging” mechanisms become the norm for “correcting” individual’s behavior, whether its eating habits or exercising routines, the private-sector engineers developing automated systems are bestowed with the power to decide what “correct” is. In the process, individuals that do not fit stereotypical images of what, for example, a “fit body” or “good eating habits” are end up being punished and pushed further to the margin. The rights of the individual, the long-term social impacts of these systems, and their consequences, intended or unintended, on the most vulnerable are pushed aside — if they ever enter the discussion at all.

Image: From SIM Card Project by Isaac Kariuki. Via Real Life.