Sophia, a robot created by Dutch techies, has recently become the first robot in the world to be given human rights by the government of Saudi Arabia. It’s a very grey area for humanity. What does it actually mean that an artificially intelligent machine has legal rights? How does a machine that technically can’t feel emotions and has no form of human conscience understand what something like freedom of speech, the right to education and basic services like running water, a flushing toilet, the right to dignity and freedom of expression mean? How could Sophia possibly understand Africa’s human story, her bloodshed, the pain of her people and her fight for the right to simply be who she is?
A recent visit to Silicon Valley in San Francisco really raised some serious questions around the tech revolution and the possibility that a second wave of colonialism could be on its way to our beloved continent. The world has bought into it. Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are the four richest companies in the world. They have a presence in almost every country on the planet. Their objective: MONEY. How? Engage the world’s population on digital platforms that use artificial intelligence to derive behavioural profiles of said population and then use that data to serve advertising and products to that population to make money.
Yes. We officially live in a world where your name and email address are not the only form of data you need to protect. Your online behavior is too. A quick insider fact… When Facebook added their love, wow, sad and angry reaction buttons to their like feature, most people thought it was just a cool add on. The reality is that they did that so that they could determine emotional responses to content, which enabled them to build an emotional profile of you, the user. Here’s an experiment to prove that. Next time you log onto Facebook, heart all the cat content on your timeline and watch (1.) You will suddenly see more cat content than you’ve ever seen in your life and (2.) Watch the ads that you start seeing… Cat sitter anyone?
While these platforms offer great value for brands, exponential organisations and even, sometimes, the user or consumer, most of what they are in the game for is their bottom line and today’s game is behavioural data to drive that bottom line. Silicon Valley is filled to the brim with new tech companies all venturing into creating the next advancement across a multitude of industry. What this essentially means, and has shown us through the reality that we would rather Google symptoms than see a doctor, is that when a tech advancement works and the world adopts it, it can become dangerous when no one questions the possibility of creating a different option.
Once upon a time, a great continent was colonised for all its resources. That continent is still on a path of healing that may take decades and, in some cases, centuries to complete. And yet here we are, starting the cycle all over again. While the colonialists may have left Africa, a new form of resource theft and exploitation could be entering our shores through the adoption of technology.
Okay, before you write this article off, I am not suggesting that we throw the resource of technology and the entire idea of participating in the tech revolution away. I am merely suggesting that before we click and download our lives away, we pause to look at the opportunity tech can give Africa to pave her own way. This time without needing to adhere the terms and conditions set out by the tech companies in the United States. One of the biggest telecommunications markets in the world is Africa. There is an average of 2.1 phones per household. Pretty interesting considering the plethora of socio-economic challenges we face. What does this mean? Global tech companies and mobile operators have access to some of the poorest people on the planet. What do these companies do? Create addictive games, content and subscription services that take money away from people and communities that need the resources the most. The result? Corporate revenue chart in the billions.
This raises a rather controversial question: Do tech companies have a moral obligation to consider the impact of their development and advancement on the world? After all, the goal of a business is to make money and in that light, they are doing exactly what they should be right? Should they be held responsible for the fact that one of the bigger consequences of tech advancement will see many jobs in many industries become totally obsolete? What happens to that population of people in the world? More importantly, what happens to people in Africa, many of whom have not known what it even feels like to have a job let alone not even having the option of ever being able to get one? Can they be held accountable for the impact of their corporate objectives on the world? Have their executives even considered the future and the cost of the future we’re seemingly headed toward?
In honesty, I am not sure that they will. The tech revolution has far surpassed anything that could be considered a normal pace of change. Where a few years ago, we were watching Will Smith take on robots in a movie, we’re now in a world where a robot has human rights. How does this give Africa an opportunity to say no? What can we do to guide the world and step up to lead globally when the world is being sucked into digital economies, augmented realities, machine learning, the internet of things and virtual reality? We remember who we are.
Africa is built on the spirit of Ubuntu. We are together. We value our humanness, our spirit, our rhythm, our need for justice and equality, our love for nature, for song, for dance, for vibrancy and for colour. We are not a continent whose values have ever been built on data, chips, binary code, virtual experiences and a futuristic utopia. Africa is real. And while the tech revolution cannot be avoided, we have the opportunity to teach the world that what is created is only an enabler and what we could never replace is the spirit in which that enabler is used. That spirit, for Africa, will always be humanity.
So while the four companies drive the world deeper into consumerism, may we use this opportunity to connect Africa through technology in a way that keeps us together and enables our communities to move forward. May we question the effect this digital revolution has and will have on people before we blindly follow the west’s lead.