Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to alter our world and to advance human development, with dramatic implications across every sector of society. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, AI could provide a 15.7 trillion-dollar boost to the world’s GDP by 2030 and is already bringing major advancements to the way we learn, conduct business and monitor our health. Mobile AI applications could deliver the kind of quality health care diagnosis usually reserved for the rich to remote locations at very low costs; it could also advance quality education with highly personalized teaching programs for all ages across the world.

At the same time, the indiscriminate dissemination of AI applications could also exacerbate inequalities. As AI applications spread rapidly across sectors and around the globe, more research is required to better understand how AI applications impact human development. To enhance the economic and social prospects of people in the global South, it is critical to support knowledge, skills development, and the institutions to responsibly implement and govern these technologies. To this end, IDRC is investing and co-designing a range of AI for development initiatives, focusing on innovations, foundations and governance. These initiatives will support relevant research, develop AI applications that are inclusive, ethical, and rights-based, and strengthen and create appropriate capacity building programs.

The main purpose of the AI for Development (AI4D) Africa project is to support a network of excellence in AI in sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen and develop community scientific and technological excellence in a range of AI-related issue areas. AI4D Africa is aiming to undertake four interrelated activities, including: 1) Develop a network of institutions and individuals working on and researching AI from across sub-Saharan Africa, via workshops and consultations; 2) Deliver an AI research agenda with a focus on ethical, legal and social aspects of AI research; 3) Generate an AI capacity building agenda via a survey of universities; and 4) Issue a call for at least ten multidisciplinary innovation projects within and outside the network, exploring local frontiers of research in AI.

AI4D Africa will run for 18 months and result in the establishment of the network, a research “roadmap”, a portfolio of innovation projects, and recommendations for capacity building for ethical and locally relevant AI research around the African continent.

This project’s overall objective is to establish a Network of Excellence in AI in sub-Saharan Africa that contributes to sustainable development through the responsible and inclusive design and deployment of AI. Specifically, the project will:

  1. Establish a sub-Saharan African network of AI researchers, practitioners and ethicists with knowledge of deep learning, machine translation, and data;
  2. Develop an AI research agenda for sub-Saharan Africa;
  3. Assess and deepen our understanding of AI capacity and use in sub-Saharan Africa with the aim of developing a capacity building agenda;
  4. Spur AI innovations that focus on ethical, inclusive, participatory and gender-responsive approaches/application to address development challenges, with consideration for SDG targets.

The project will draw from the recent IDRC-supported mapping and facilitate a bottom-up network/community of researchers who will investigate and recommend how the network/community should shape its research agenda and actions. Additionally, the project will consider effective capacity building approaches based on identified policy and educational frameworks within the target countries.

The major outputs expected from the research include the following:

  • Output 1: AI4D Africa Network of Excellence: This will aim to improve the networking and capacity of members of the network of excellence.
  •  Output 2: Research consultation workshop and research agenda: The project will organize a three-day workshop with AI experts, ethicists, policy makers and other stakeholders from across sub-Saharan Africa. The output of this workshop will be turned into a regional research agenda.
  • Output 3: Assessment of academic capacity to engage in A: Multi-stage survey of academic institutions from around the continent.
  •  Output 4: State of capacity repor: The results of the survey will be compiled into a report on the future options for capacity building in AI in Africa. This will be peer reviewed, edited and published.
  • Output 5: AI applications: These will be the results of the innovation grants.