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There have been so many warnings about Artificial Intelligence including a call from 1000 tech leaders and researchers, and Elon Musk calling for a pause on AI and they point to the potential risk of AI to humanity. Governments are playing catch-up, looking for what UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called ‘guard rails’ at the G7 summit in Hiroshima to limit the dangers of AI. In this interview, South African tech entrepreneur, Stafford Maisie described AI as a superpower and said that he was leaning more into the idea that you could do more with less. For Africa, he said it would either be a dystopian future or a massive opportunity. – Linda van Tilburg
Excerpts from the interview
A future where you can do so much more with less
With the toolset that leadership has now, we can imagine not doing more with less, but kind of reimagine what we could do more, what was previously thought impossible. I think that’s the promise of A.I., and I tend to lean into that world more than I am looking for the shoots of dystopia. If we do have 55 000 people losing their jobs at BT down to having fewer humans, more output with what they had before, and they don’t add any more portfolio services, that is a dystopia, but that won’t be because of AI. That will be because of a lack of imagination on behalf of the leadership within BT to imagine a new portfolio of services where human machines symbiosis or something that they can’t even imagine. I think that’s the story that I’m more focussed on than thinking about this guy that’s going to lose his job or what is going to happen to them? Sure, that is going to happen, and it is the clickbait stuff, but there is a different story that’s happening that’s more exciting to me.
AI could be the new Kodak vs Instagram story
Someone came along and said Kodak’s declaring bankruptcy, the company’s sinking and yet Instagram gets bought by Facebook for $2 billion. I can’t remember the exact figure and it had about 12 employees. People said, “Look at this. You’ve had this institution that captures photography, that’s in the photo world and they’ve got cameras and they have digital cameras, they’ve got artwork etc and all the patents and they’ve got hundreds of thousands of people and they’ve got this distribution network and Instagram had 12/13 people and was bought for this amount by Facebook. When you take a look at Kodak declaring bankruptcy, people say, see, the machines are kind of destroying us.
I think that’s a very, very naive and linear way to look at it. If you take a look at what Instagram is as a business and its net result is that we have phones and how many people are going to make these phones and then how many people go into the making of the networks that allow communicating and then the ISPs around that and you take a look at that and I would argue that Instagram actually from an ecosystem perspective, resulted in more human labour on aggregate than a Kodak did on aggregate, because now suddenly we have not a few people that can afford a few of the Kodak products; now we have every human being on the planet with this incredible thing called a smartphone running across these thick broadband networks federating content from the edges into the cloud. I think that creates huge amounts of work. We got influencers, we got people making money and building businesses on those platforms.
A massive opportunity for Africa, but its kryptonite is inequality
Yuval Noah said something quite profound and he says the future that could lie ahead of us is not the rich exploiting the poor. It’s the rich no longer needing the poor and irrelevance could be this dystopian potential. I always say AI is a superpower, but Africa’s kryptonite is inequality and I think it could result in that and that’s a concern for me. I think Africa’s promise is it still has the commodity, it still has stuff in its soil that the rest of the world needs. But in terms of just human capital, we’ve got to get our act together, because our relevancy is outplayed here from an economic perspective. I think there’s a massive opportunity if our leadership understands this stuff. So, people like myself in the IT industry in Africa have a huge responsibility to articulate this possibility, to articulate the political capital in this so leaders do wake up to the opportunity. But yes,it’s a concern and I think the regulation of and the adherence to those regulations in Africa will be an interesting one. And again, that’s a big, big challenge for AI.
Danger of foreign interference in Africa
We’ve seen it with social media where we saw social media, Facebook’s role in people dying from fake news and electing the wrong people. We’ve seen it. Could AI be an instrument of conflict? Could you render a visual that looks so real, that has a particular leader being arrested by the military and that it never really happened and it’s a video that plays and it’s so authentic?. That’s where I’m very concerned and if you take a look at the African populace that are not necessarily as literate or as connected as maybe a modern G8 country is, I think that those are very real concerns. I’m not talking about the United States, can they use these tools to come up against Biden versus Trump? I mean, those things they need to deal with. I look at it from an African perspective, a foreign influence perspective. Foreign influences now have tools that are very, very scary.
Tech companies need more humanity skills in the room
You’ve got to be very careful right now that you have too much of the science, too much of the technologists in the room because they can wow you. When we take things out right now and we show you, everyone’s jaws drop. I think we need less technology and more humanity. I think we need more humanity skills in the room. We need a person that’s a journalist, a person that understands Greek mythology, psychology, and Roman history. I think these are the people that will balance out the sciences. So the world needs more of the humanity skill sets in the room versus the technology skill sets, because the technology skill sets in the room, we’ve already seen. Look at Facebook. We had Mark Zuckerberg. There’s a technologist with less of the humanities in the room and now you see elements of dystopia.
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