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Here’s how Melinda Gates, Masiyiwa and their peers advise you seize the day

The Commission was launched in Nairobi last month/FRANCIS MBATHA

NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 5 – News reports on Samantha the sexbot caused quite the stir on the Kenyan cybersphere; inspiring the creation of several memes and even providing material for comedians.

Of course given the variance in sensibilities, some were tickled, others offended.

And as it is with robots, so it is with artificial intelligence (AI); advancements made in this pursuit inspire awe in some but strike fear in the hearts of others. What if machines armed with artificial intelligence, one day take over the world?

A fear that has given rise to many a gripping sci-fi thrillers and fed into the debate often had about money which by nature isn’t good or evil but can be used for either good or evil.

It’s the same view Melinda Gates holds about technology, “I believe in biotechnology but there’s also bioterrorism,” she said at the launch of the Pathways for Prosperity Commission in Nairobi, last week.

A Commission that asks the question what if, what if the technology used in the realisation of Samantha, were focused beyond the attainment of carnal pleasure and directed at something bigger, say, the end of Malaria for example which Melinda informed her audience at the launch, has seen a resurgence in certain areas.

“We’ve lived with Malaria since the time of the Egyptians, and guess what, it’s coming back to places because of climate change.”

If we’re going by Maslow’s Hierarchy, Malaria being a leading killer in the developing world,should be at or near the top of the technologists’ to-do list.

But if the inequality report Oxfam released a few days prior to the launch of the Commission is any indication, life certainly isn’t fair.

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The report shows that 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion who make up the poorest half of the world’s population and that these 3.7 billion saw no increase in their wealth last year with 82 per cent of the wealth generated going to the richest one per cent.

Strive Masiyiwa who co-chairs the Pathways for Prosperity Commission with Melinda, like her, doesn’t fall in the same bracket as the world’s 3.7 billion poorest – sharing in a slice of the African telecommunications pie.

But confronted with this reality, he is convinced of the urgent need to balance out the scales. “Some of our economies are riding out at seven, eight per cent, Kenya is one of them. But the truth is our growth is not inclusive. It is leaving a lot of people out,” he observed at the launch.

An imbalance for which he feels, the continent has already paid too high a price and which he warns could only stand to get worse if not urgently addressed.

“We’re on a continent where the average age is 19.  Sixty five per cent of our people were not even born when I was running around trying to build mobile phone networks. And as these technologies are coming through, that are far greater than what we saw before, how do we create jobs? How do we create jobs without having our kids cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean? How do we create jobs so that we do not have extremist groups that completely disrupt our society? This is why there’s an urgency. We need to mobilise everybody to participate in a conversation about how we take advantage for our benefit of these changes and build resilience where we cannot take advantage.”

“Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion,” Melinda emphasised at the launch and utilising technology to achieve it.

– Fear –

In their view, what could stand in the way of attaining that end, is fear.

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In the words of novelist Dan Brown, “we fear what we do not understand.”

And despite the relentless advancements in technology, the fears that machines will one day lord over man seem light years away when held up against the more immediate fear of losing jobs to technology; whether it be as tea pickers or bank tellers.

And while there is no denying that technology can be disruptive, change is inevitable and harnessing it for the world of possibilities it opens up, is what the Commission hopes to advance.

“Many policy makers don’t know how to respond to technology change, they worry,” Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s Finance Minister and the third co-chair of the Commission shared at the launch.

It is therefore the Commission’s ambition to bridge what Gargee Ghosh, international policy team leader at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, describes as a disconnect between policy makers and techies because as another popular maxim goes, information is power.

“If you think about policy makers on the one hand who tend not to speak technology and technologists and entrepreneurs on the other hand who tend not to care much about or know much about policy, in that gap we’re missing an opportunity to really unleash entrepreneurship but also provide the institutional environment for scale and reach and impact and that I think is the sweet spot that the Commission is aiming to fill.”

How the Commission hopes to help bridge that gap, according to its Academic Directors Stefan Dercon an Oxford Professor and Benno Ndulu a former Governor of the Central Bank of Tanzania, is through the gathering of empirical data to inform their recommendations on how technology can be channeled toward solving what Ndulu describes as the “wicked problems” – developmental challenges – of our age.

That said, Ghosh made it clear at the launch that, “we will absolutely not have a ‘go dark’ research phase and then emerge with some sort of answer,” the idea being a bringing of the minds together.

“The idea is that we will do research and hold discussion groups, learning trips, all the way through so that we’re engaging the target audience for this Commission which is ultimately government, entrepreneurs, academics, who will be  part of then extending the solution to the people we’re trying to serve.”

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There would be a lot to learn from such an engagement Minister Indrawati, a former World Bank Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer, attested to at the launch; lessons on successful models that could be replicated elsewhere and pitfalls to avoid.

And with name brands as it were – who have the ear of policy makers – leading the charge, Dercon expressed optimism that getting those bureaucratic cogwheels moving in the direction of a technologically empowered future, meant that they were off to a strong start.

“I hope you agree, we’re quite well connected given the kind of people we have on the Commission and we actually seek to use our influence and our authority over the quality of the ideas we bring to actually engage with the policy makers.”

Melinda Gates was in Kenya to launch ‘Pathways for Prosperity: A new Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development’ as well as visit partners in Kenya/PSCU

– Silver bullet –

That said, Dercon, Indrawati and Masiyiwa were careful not to present technology or philanthropy as a magic bullet. “Technology is not a solution on its own,” the professor said.

“We will need to get our business climate right, we’ll need to get our education right. We may have all the mobile phones but often our children are not learning in African schools. So it is not about oh well, we can forget about all the things that we need to get right.”

So equipping the citizenry to take advantage of the opportunities that the digital revolution presents, Masiyiwa said of governments, would make the difference between an active or passive participation in Africa’s destiny.

“We can embrace any technology that’s gonna come through, the real challenge will be skills, how do we skill up our children to be able to take advantage, how do we skill up today’s worker for tomorrow? We can’t skill them up for the industries of the 20th Century, let alone the 19th in some cases. We are now in the 21st Century and so we’ve got to look at even the fabric of our education and be bold enough to say is it fit for purpose?”

“On this continent, we’ve got 30, 40 million kids that should be in school, that are not in school at all. And they’re getting angry, some of them are calling themselves Boko Haram. But we have to respond to those kinds of urgencies because that’s where extreme voices find root.

We’ve got to deal with education systems where we’ve got kids in school that are not learning, who are not learning for what we’re going to need to be equipped for tomorrow.”

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“Opportunities yes, but they’re not going to passively come at us, we have now to skill up and to build a learning society that is constantly learning for a constantly changing environment.”

– Exponential potential –

The choice of Nairobi “the home of M-PESA ” as Masiyiwa put it, and the iHub as the venue of choice for the launch was in itself part of the Commission’s narrative; that already there was evidence of the life transforming capability of technology.

M-PESA for example – a mobile phone-based mobile money transfer service – helped reach the unbanked by expanding its product base to include micro-saving and microloan services and through M-Akiba, users can now invest in treasury bonds; expanding access to financial services.

In Indonesia, Indrawati shared at the launch, 1.5 million jobs have been created through ride sharing apps.

That’s not to mean technology cannot be disruptive at the onset, as was witnessed when taxi hailing app Uber entered the Kenyan market and encountered some resistance from taxi drivers in fear of losing their income.

Despite the rocky start, taxi services are now available to more of the population at a fraction of what it traditionally cost.

The consumer also has more options on account of Taxify, Mondo and Little which compete for a share of the business and have also created jobs.

Ndulu and Dercon however conceded that these upsides are not always foreseeable in the immediate future. A case in point being the massive job losses witnessed in Kenya’s banking sector. Just last week, the National Bank announced it would be retiring 150 of its employees, as young as 35, in a restructuring exercise.

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It is however Dercon and Ndulu’s argument that the very same technology that has made it unnecessary for customers to stand in long queues in banking halls and enabled them to manage their accounts remotely through their mobile phones and other devices has created jobs, in fact more than those rendered redundant.

“If you look at the evidence properly, it may be that jobs, per number of customers, might have been lost but not the total number of jobs because those that are now actually having banking services have increased significantly. And not only that, you have to look at the larger ecosystems, you have agents, in agent banking – that are not classified as bank employees – you also have those that are in the payment system that are also delivering services, all those jobs typically are many more,” the former Central Bank Governor submitted.

Social media, Indrawati and Ndulu were in agreement, could also be used as a governance tool by allowing policy makers to communicate directly to and hear back from their constituents.

“When you are explaining a policy, you should explain the trade off; who’s going to be the beneficiary and who’s going to lose because in many countries, good policy does not prevail because of backlash from those who suffer from this policy. The loser can be very forceful while the winner can be a silent majority. So creating with technology a debate in a way that people can see that this policy can benefit more people and will make your country or economy better and stronger will give a chance for a good policy to actually win support,” Indrawati argued.

Social media, Ndulu submitted, could also be a useful tool in the fight against graft; the weekend prior, a Kenyan police officer having been booted out of the service after a mobile phone camera recording of him soliciting a bribe, went viral.

“Technology that can enable citizens to react to decisions on Twitter and other formats actually does put pressure for good behaviour and does put pressure for avoidance of corrupt practices.”

READ: ‘We only take thousands’ (in bribes) cop booted out of service

In the area of health, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is among those financing research and development into how vaccines which need to remain refrigerated to stay effective, for example, can be remain viable in areas without electricity, inexpensively.

That’s just one example of the “last mile” problems governments in the developing world encounter in their efforts to deliver on their mandate to deliver healthcare among other basic services.

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And it’s just these kinds of “last mile” problems hopes to see solved through a collaborative effort between policy makers, technologists, academicians and entrepreneurs.

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