Africa: The New Arena for China-US Competition in AI Development

Johannesburg — The future prospects of Artificial Intelligence in Africa?

Posed to the AI service ChatGPT, it reveals that Artificial Intelligence promises significant transformative potential in sectors like health care, agriculture, and education.

Experts concur, highlighting AI’s rapid emergence as a key area in the U.S.-China rivalry within Africa.

“For progress in AI, substantial investment in technological infrastructure is necessary,” notes Chinasa T. Okolo, a fellow at The Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation. “Both the U.S. and China can be instrumental allies in such endeavors.”

Future forecasts indicate a potential scarcity of data in English and Western languages for AI firms, unlike in Africa, where the data demand persists, shares Okolo.

“Investments in Africa afford AI powerhouses like the U.S. and China access to invaluable data that could enhance their development of services and solutions for the African market,” she elaborates.

South Africa’s Commitment to AI

South Africa is notably advancing in its AI ambitions.

Mondli Gungubele, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, at a recent AI summit, emphasized, “We are entering the generative AI era, and we must not be left behind.”

The country has established the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa (AIISA) and is creating university-based “hubs” to leverage AI across various sectors, informed Hitekani Magwedze, ministry spokesperson.

“The AIISA has initiated AI hubs in key sectors including manufacturing, farming, transportation, and defense,” Magwedze informed VOA.

“Being in alliances with world powers like the U.S. and China positions South Africa as an entry point into Africa for these nations,” he added.

Magwedze pointed out AI’s role in tackling national challenges such as unemployment and poverty.

In May, Tshwane University of Technology alongside Intel, will inaugurate a new AI Career Tech Center.

“Our national AI hubs collaborate with leading global partners to fulfill the aims of our AI institutes,” states Anish Kurien, interim director at the university’s AIISA hub.

The Defense Department initiated a Defense Artificial Intelligence Research Unit, marking a leap in military innovation.

“AI is a cornerstone technology in addressing African-specific challenges, pushing us towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says Wayne Dalton, deputy director of the new unit, to VOA.

Discussing U.S.-China collaboration, Dalton mentions, “Our AI strategy is nascent, but it presents numerous opportunities for beneficial partnerships.”

Recent trends show a rise in Chinese favorability in South Africa, contrasted with a slight decline for the U.S., as per a recent Gallup report.

Okolo suggests that trends in public opinion do not directly impact AI collaborations, with African nations choosing partners based on value offered.

“Although the U.S. has provided aid, China’s infrastructure investment strategy may play a critical role as African nations aim to improve their tech infrastructure,” Okolo explains.

Engagement from China and the U.S.

Google and IBM have established AI research centers in Africa, marking significant U.S. investment in the continent’s AI sector.

At a recent event in Nairobi, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced a partnership promoting U.S. investment in Kenyan AI and data centers.

Lisa Walker of Prosper Africa discusses advancing U.S.-Africa partnerships in line with President Biden’s digital strategy for the continent.

“Prosper Africa’s Africa Tech for Trade Alliance includes leading companies like Google and Intel, enhancing technological collaboration,” she adds.

China, for over a decade, has focused on improving Africa’s internet infrastructure as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

A China-Africa cooperation forum in Xiamen highlighted the importance of AI in fostering development and technological progress in developing nations.

“AI development benefits both China and African countries, underscoring our commitment to technological advancement,” comments Liu Pengyu of the Chinese Embassy.

Liu mentions plans for collaborative governance on AI with Africa and the U.S., aiming to direct AI towards human progress.

Liu notes recent dialogue between Chinese and U.S. leaders to foster cooperation in AI, anticipating upcoming government-level discussions.

Walker contrasts U.S.-China rivalry, highlighting U.S. firms’ unique value propositions.

“American tech companies stand out by focusing on mutual growth and creating local jobs,” she states.

Okolo expresses skepticism about the depth of U.S.-China engagement in Africa’s AI sector.

“Despite increasing interest, it’s challenging to gauge the genuine commitment of the U.S. and China to African AI innovation,” Okolo concluded.

The AI Index Report highlighted the U.S. as a leader in AI models while noting China’s dominance in AI patent filings, according to Stanford University’s analysis.

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