File picture: Matan Segev/Pexels
File picture: Matan Segev/Pexels

Africa must shape its own AI destiny

By David Monyae Time of article published Feb 5, 2020

Share this article:

On October 24, 1956, Britain, France and Israel held a secret meeting in Paris to reverse president Gamal Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in Egypt - a global trading route and power symbol of the British empire.

When this ill-judged plan broke out in open war on November 2, president Dwight Eisenhower made it clear that the US would not support the move. Britain and its allies were forced to agree to a UN led ceasefire. This marked the ultimate end of the British hegemony in global affairs.

Since the end of the Cold War, American multinational companies such as McDonald's, KFC, Amazon, Apple and Facebook spread across the globe. When McDonald's opened in Moscow’s Pushkinskaya Square on January 31, 1990, it marked the beginning of US led globalisation. That day, McDonald's served more than 30000 hungry Muscovites eager to try tasty capitalistic diets. No one would have thought that in 30 years’ time, US multinational companies will confront their toughest competition from multinational companies in China.

Chinese telecom giant Huawei is a case in point. Since 1998, Huawei has grown exponentially, occupying number two spot after Samsung in the world. Spooked by Huawei dominance in Artificial Intelligence, Washington placed strident restrictions on the company to avoid Chinese dominance in the rolling out of the 5G wireless infrastructure at home and abroad.

It came at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin predicted that the country that leads in Artificial Intelligence, including 5G, will dominate global affairs.

It therefore comes as a surprise that Washington’s strongest and trusted ally, Britain has effectively ruled in favour of Huawei playing an active role in the rolling out of non-security core 5G wireless infrastructure. This is yet more British defiance of the US position on what it perceives as China's threatening rise. Britain also joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) against Washington’s wish to limit China’s leadership in infrastructure financing.

These moves have opened a wide crack within the US-dominated post-1945 World Order. It appears the debate will drastically shift from the US led anti-Huawei narrative to broad discussions about global cyber-security.

African countries have joined Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brazil and others in doing business with Huawei. The US attempt to blacklist Huawei appears to be failing. It is important for South Africa and the rest of the continent to avoid targeting any specific multinational company. It is critical for South Africa, as chair of the AU, to lead in finding a multilateral solution in the governance of multinational companies involved in a sensitive field such as 5G wireless infrastructure.

Africa should follow the excellent case made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that all companies involved in the 5G rollout should be seriously vetted to ensure they comply with national laws. There are endless revelations from WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden that countries blaming Huawei for espionage have themselves been involved in eavesdropping on many world leaders.

Africa has refused to take part in the epicentre of the global power struggle for a cost-effective wireless infrastructure. The continent should be open for business to all global players in the rolling out of 5G. Given its large numbers of youth, Africa ought to embrace both Chinese and American companies without fear or favour. More importantly, Africa should actively participate in the creation of a rule-based environment governing the future of 5G wireless infrastructure.

The spat between the US and China over Huawei is an opportunity for Africa to build its own technology. Africa remains a consumer of high-end technological products of other countries in the West and East. It is vital for the AU and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to encourage member states to increase funding of higher learning institutions and learning hubs to innovate. Africa must play an active role in shaping the future of AI without being a victim of power struggles for dominance.

* Monyae is director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

Share this article:

Related Articles