A rural farmer in Tanzania hovers over a wilting cassava plant with her phone. In seconds she gets a diagnosis of the disease affecting her plant and how best to manage it to boost her production.
The farmer used an app on her phone based on TensorFlow, Google’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine that the company outsourced to help developers create solutions to real-world problems.
When people think of Artificial Intelligence, they most likely think of scenes from science fiction movies, but in reality, it applies to everyday life from virtual assistants to language translation on Google, says John Quinn, an AI researcher.
Google now wants to position itself as an “AI first” company and with research centers across the globe in places such as Tokyo, Zurich, New York, and Paris.
And last week, the technology company opened its first center in Africa in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.
Benefits of AI
AI can be applied in sectors such as agriculture, health, and education, and Moustapha Cisse, the research scientist heading up Google’s AI efforts in Africa, says his team’s goal is to provide developers with the necessary research needed to build products that can solve problems that Africa faces today.
“Most of what we do in our research centers at Google and not just in Accra, we publish it and open-source code, so that everybody can use it to build all sorts of things,” he said.
Cisse mentioned the app used by the Tanzanian farmer, to diagnose her cassava’s disease as an example of the type of product his team plans to collaborate on with relevant institutes across various sectors.
“A team of Pennsylvania University and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture using TensorFlow to build new artificial intelligence models that are deployed on phones to diagnose crop disease.
“This wasn’t done by us but by people who use the tools we built.
“When we do science, the results of our research, usually and hopefully, because it is of good quality, goes way further than we expect and we are hoping to see the same things happen here in Accra and across Africa,” Cisse said.
Cisse, an expert from Senegal, says the center directly engages with researchers in African universities by providing grants to those interested in the various fields of AI and giving Ph.D. scholarships.
He added that Google also supports graduate programs in Machine Learning at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in South Africa.
Cisse leads a team of nine others that include research scientists and software engineers. Team members come from nine different countries such as Lesotho, Uganda, and Ireland, among others.
It is a diverse team, and Cisse says it is important that Africans are at the forefront of providing solutions to problems on their continent.
The center will also focus on enhancing Google Translate’s ability to capture African languages more precisely, with Cisse saying a continent with more than 2000 dialects deserves to be better served.
Google joins Facebook and other tech companies, in launching projects in Africa with a keen eye on the continent’s rising youth population.