The ability to make good decisions is literally the reason people trust you with responsibilities. Whether you work for a government or lead a team at a private company, your decision-making process will affect lives in very real ways.

Organisations often make poor decisions because they fail to learn from the past. Wherever a data-collection reluctance exists, there is a fair chance that mistakes will be repeated. Bad policy goals will often be a consequence of faulty evidentiary support, a failure to sufficiently look ahead by not sufficiently looking back.

But as Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, says:

“The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained.” If governments and business leaders will live up to their responsibilities, enthusiastically embracing methodical decision-making tools should be a no-brainer.

AI for public policy

Mass media representations project artificial intelligence in futuristic, geeky terms. But nothing could be further from the truth.

While it is indeed scientific, AI can be applied in practical everyday life today. Basic interactions with AI include algorithms that recommend articles to you, friend suggestions on social media and smart voice assistants like Alexa and Siri.

In the same way, government agencies can integrate AI into regular processes necessary for society to function properly.

Managing money is an easy example to begin with. AI systems can be used to streamline data points required  during budget preparations and other fiscal processes. Based on data collected from previous fiscal cycles, government agencies could reasonably forecast needs and expectations for future years.

With its large trove of citizen data, governments could employ AI to effectively reduce inequalities in outcomes and opportunities. Big Data gives a bird’s-eye view of the population, providing adequate tools for equitably distributing essential infrastructure.   

Perhaps a more futuristic example is in drafting legislation. Though a young discipline, legimatics includes the use of artificial intelligence in legal and legislative problem-solving.

Democracies like Nigeria consider public input a crucial aspect of desirable law-making. While AI cannot yet be relied on to draft legislation without human involvement, an AI-based approach can produce tools for specific parts of legislative drafting or decision support systems for the application of legislation.

AI for business innovation

In Africa, businesses are already ahead of most governments in AI adoption. Credit scoring based on customer data has become popular in the digital lending space. 

However, there is more for businesses to explore with the predictive powers of AI. A particularly exciting prospect is the potential for new discoveries based on unstructured data.

Machine learning could broadly be split into two sections: supervised and unsupervised learning. With supervised learning, a data analyst sets goals based on the labels and known classifications of the dataset. The resulting insights are useful but do not produce the sort of new knowledge that comes from unsupervised learning processes.

In essence, AI can be a medium for market-creating innovations based on previously unknown insight buried in massive caches of data.

Digital lending became a market opportunity in Africa thanks to growing smartphone availability. However, customer data had to be available too for algorithms to do their magic.

This is why it is desirable for more data-sharing systems to be normalised on the continent to generate new consumer products. Fintech sandboxes that bring the public and private sectors together aiming to achieve open data standards should therefore be encouraged.

A word of caution

Artificial intelligence, like other technologies, is neutral. It can be used for social good but also can be diverted for malicious purposes. For both governments and businesses, there must be circumspection and a commitment to use AI responsibly.

China is a cautionary tale. The Communist state currently employs an all-watching system of cameras to enforce round-the-clock citizen surveillance.

By algorithmically rating citizens on a so-called social credit score, China’s ultra-invasive AI effectively precludes individual freedom, compelling her 1.3 billion people to live strictly by the Politburo’s ideas of ideal citizenship.

On the other hand, businesses must be ethical in providing transparency to customers about how data is harvested to create products. At the core of all exchange must be trust, and a verifiable, measurable commitment to do no harm.

Doing otherwise condemns modern society to those dystopian days everybody dreads.

How can businesses and governments use Artificial Intelligence to find solutions to challenges facing the continent? Join entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and policymakers in Africa’s AI community at TechCabal’s emerging tech townhall. At the event, stakeholders including telcos and financial institutions will examine how businesses, individuals and countries across the continent can maximize the benefits of emerging technologies, specifically AI and Blockchain. Learn more about the event and get tickets here.

Alexander Onukwue Author

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