African Thought in the Era of Artificial Intelligence

September 29, 2021


by Kwabena Slaughter

“Artificial Intelligence”, AI for short, is a theory about computer systems that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence; such as visual and speech recognition, decision-making, and the translation of languages. The term was coined by the Stanford professor John McCarthy in 1955, in his proposal to lead a workshop about this type of computer system. The challenge has been that once a computer system is loaded up with information it has to know how to analyze and respond to it. This is where algorithms have entered the mix. They guide the computer’s thinking personality.

Algorithms control the actions of many areas of business; such as agriculture, advertising, engineering, economics, entertainment, and more. Unfortunately, these businesses often don’t recognize how their cultural biases become encoded into the algorithm. For example, if a photo posted on Twitter is larger than the timeline can display, an algorithm that selects a smaller portion to show. In 2020 Twitter issued a public apology in response to a discovery made by some users that if a photo contained people of a diverse range of skin colors this image-cropping algorithm always chose in favor of the lighter-skinned people. Ruha Benjamin, in her award-winning book Race After Technology, refers to this encoded bias as the “New Jim Code”––a digital form of systemic discrimination against dark-skinned people of African descent.

The word “artificial” refers to the constructedness of the cognitive capacity of computers. Machine intelligence is fabricated, rather than naturally occurring. To understand what AI means we should also understand the word “intelligence”. The computer technology that we live with today is mostly a product of western culture. However, the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, i.e. intelligence, is not solely the property of western white patriarchy. Africa’s intellectual history and its intellectual future are woven into global society. The African intellect has more to offer than has been presumed by the constraints of colonialism. The technology industry is a platform upon which individual and collective African thought can be articulated and contribute to a better world.

On the African continent there are many businesses working with AI to create social advances. In Ghana and Nigeria the prevalence of mobile phones has sparked the medical industry to create AI systems that make it easier and less expensive to be in contact with a doctor. In South Africa, the computer scientist and electrical engineer Vukosi Marivate works with Local Language Natural Language Processing, so that computers can learn local languages and use that data to facilitate society’s growth. Jackie Mwaniki, based in Kenya, uses geospatial technology and AI to plan and manage regional systems of energy and electrical distribution throughout east Africa. Mutale Nkonde, founding director of AI for the People, uses journalism, arts and culture to advance racial justice in tech. And in other areas of the continent AI start-ups are seeking to make improvements in agricultural planning, public transportation, general education, and more. The great work of these great people will help improve the lives of many. To keep things going in a healthy direction let us all contribute our own intelligence to the future of AI.

Kwabena Slaughter is a PhD student in American Studies at George Washington University. He is interested in the intersection of the 19th Century black industrial education and the early days of western modernism. He is a visual artist with an MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. His artwork is in museum and private collections across the US. He’s also worked as a producer of performing arts programs at Lincoln Center, the Met Museum, and The Africa Center. To learn more about the ways in which Africans are contributing to the growing field of artificial intelligence, watch our program “AI to the Future: Why African Leaders Matter,” below.