Frontier technologies: hype or reality in Nigeria?

When you strap on a headset to view Joel Kachi Benson’s award-winning short film, Daughters of Chibok, you are transported to the northeastern town where a gross injustice happened to scores of college girls while they slept in their dormitory in 2014.

Perhaps, Benson’s film was not any different from the years of protesting and the reported anguish that the families of the young girls felt watching the government dilly dally with the lives of their wards. But his choice of medium, virtual reality, figuratively and literally brought the story closer to home.

Virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning, blockchain, are a class of frontier technologies taking firmer root in new age technology innovation and advancement from self driving cars to nursing robots.

Most emerging technologies bank on the intelligence of computing systems to be able to problem solve autonomously when presented with a set of data. This proposition relies on the fact that by constantly feeding an intelligent system with information, it can become self-sufficient capable of learning and applying its knowledge much as a human being would.

Although this has been one of the reasons for more subtle or overt rejection of these technologies in some quarters, this potential of computing systems to behave like humans, frontier technologies have become a nice-sounding anchor for technology businesses in the country looking to sell their products and solutions as revolutionary. AI in healthtech, VR in edutech, robots in civic tech. Not all of them are flukes, however.

Neonatal asphyxia results in 20-30% of child mortality in the country. It is simply the insufficiency of oxygen during delivery and can lead to coma, death or birth defects in newborns. A startup called Ubenwa launched in 2014 to address this. By analysing an infant’s cry against a database of infant cries using machine learning, the startup’s app can help offer early risk assessment to parents and healthcare personnel and save the life of the newborn. And because infant cries are sole and critical indicators of the needs of an infant, the app could help parents understand and determine their baby’s needs more accurately.

Like many sectors in the country though, credit for new tech is still a huge challenge in the country. A number of fintech startups are filling in the gap particularly for small and medium scale business owners or individual borrowers whom traditional banking systems overlook. Services offering instant access to micro-loans are able to ascertain credit risks using intelligent algorithms that comb through a borrower’s phone when they make a loan request to determine credit-worthiness and their potential to payback.

With augmented reality, e-commerce startups like Taeillo, a premium furniture brand, now allows a buyer try out a piece of furniture in their actual space to ensure that it fits the space and their aesthetic needs before making a purchase. Fashion stores like Touchbal are also using this kind of AR to perfect the online shopping experience of their users.

In logistics, IoT (Internet of Things) technologies employed by startups like Kobo360 and Lori Systems, through its interconnected network of digital trackers and logging systems, offer real-time data and oversight on the movement of goods from one part of the country to the other.

An AI system developed by an organisation called Data Science Nigeria, can scan students faces during a class and determine who is or isn’t paying attention in class while virtual reality techniques have been used in classrooms, a pilot program foremost VR/AR Nigerian hub Imisi3D Lab put together in partnership with the UNICEF Innovation Fund.

Understandably, when you place Nigeria’s exploits in frontier technologies space side by side with what is obtainable globally, the country is a long way off from what is possible and where the use cases of these technologies lie.

There are three major reasons why: data, talent and research.

“Open data reflects the state of things in our environment. Unfortunately, we have a government that doesn’t believe in open data,” said Emeka Okoye, CEO, Cymantiks, at an emerging technologies townhall organised by media publication TechCabal early this year.

Big Data, copious amounts of data, forms the foundational bedrock for intelligent and autonomous systems. And a dearth of its availability, both in terms of depth and breath, can limit what is possible with the technologies in the country. For computing systems to process information and perform actions that mirror human intelligence, they need to be inundated with data that provides enough context for this to happen. But availability and access to data is not the only challenge here.

Storage and analysis of big data via frameworks like cloud computing also suffer from broadband internet access and power instability challenges. Most cloud computing infrastructure in use in the country are made available by global technology companies like Microsoft and Google either directly to the organisations that need them or in partnership with local IT companies.

Lagos-based Cloud computing company Cloud Exchange, hopes to offer a localised alternative. Chief Sales, Strategy, and marketing officer at Cloud Exchange, Tobi Koyejo says, the company is launching its first physical data centre in Lagos later this year to serve international and local businesses looking to scale within Nigeria. “We are building a Tier 4 data centre, that means we have the safest, most dependable, infrastructure you can find” Koyejo says. According to him, Cloud Exchange’s servers will be independently powered, preventing delays in service delivery due to power cuts. He also believes localised data centres will protect businesses that depend on cloud computing services from latency issues, security risks and rising costs of paying global providers.

The National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), last year, developed a Nigeria Cloud Computing Policy to provide frameworks and ensure infrastructure availability for all government-run organisations as well as promote its Open Data Initiative. Without the ability of innovators to access the wealth of information, various government parastatals have access to experts say, achieving maximum impact or exploring new use cases where frontier technologies can help will remain limited at best or a farce, at worst.

Even with access to a wealth of data, the availability of talent versed in the building of digital tools powered by frontier technologies still presents a hurdle in how far their impact can go in a country where computing skills are largely acquirable by a privileged few.

Nigeria’s tertiary institutions’ dated curricula also fails to take into consideration the skill and career needs of the future. However, there are a number of organisations standing in to fill the gap. One of such is Data Science Nigeria (DSN). Founded in 2016, the organisation provides a diverse set of training in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. It also has a vast network of student groups across the country and founder, Olubayo Adekanmbi, says the vision is “to raise 1 million AI talents in 10 years”. While it offers practical training using realistic datasets and solving real-time problems online, the organisation also overcomes the challenges of internet access through an offline solution, a 2Terabyte hard disk referred to as the AI Knowledge Box. With over 10,000 lectures culled from top global universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the drives are distributed to students at no cost.

DSN also fills an important role in talent development among corporate Nigerian organisations looking to employ some of these technologies in their product and service development.

Peer-to-peer group, AI Saturdays, is also another organisation filling the talent space in the country. Over a two month period, the group comes together every Saturday for a full-day of learning, knowledge sharing and hands-on learning in the field of Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and data analytics.

The roles these organisations play in the talent development space have immensely contributed to increased awareness of the areas where these technologies can impact various economic sectors particularly in a country looking to override failed traditional systems.

However, to really feel the impact, tens and hundreds of these need to be established in various geopolitical zones particularly in tertiary institutions which, like in more advanced countries, are test beds for new innovation and technology development.

And this matters because of the third factor that needs to be addressed for these technologies to really reach the kind of impact that is possible.

Across the world, intelligent technology is becoming more heavily relied upon in various segments of society. Big Data companies like Facebook and Google remain at the forefront of these developments from facial recognition to identity verification systems. Chatbots, predictability systems employed by companies like Netflix are all part of examples of these systems in practical use. As with the technology solutions that the ecosystem in Nigeria is building, there are problems unique to us within the context of our societies that a Google AI system may not be able to accurately address. And so, to find the use cases for these technologies within our context, we must start to equip and build out these technologies to suit our specific concerns.

Global companies like Google, create holistic intelligent systems out of datasets. But these datasets have increasingly been said to be less inclusive of representation from this part of the world. In spite of caveats that note these limitations, scientists have been using their own datasets to build solutions.

“We can’t wait for people to say I don’t have Nigerian data,” says Adekanmbi. “Somebody’s got to collect it.”

The work is really just beginning with frontier technologies in Nigeria, but it is not all hype. There are startups already innovating along these lines and some support by the government in terms of policy development geared towards addressing some of the challenges in the ecosystem.

However, to really impact the way we adopt technology across various sectors of the country and to nail where these technologies can effectively and precisely become a huge influence, solving the talent/research, infrastructure and data access problems in concert is non-negotiable and imperative.


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