Open AIR Research into 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies and Artificial Intelligence: An Overview of Ongoing Activities

By Nagham El Houssamy and Nadine Weheba

Monumental advances in technology are impacting human lives, including in Africa. Fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) feature prominently in initiatives conducted at Open AIR hubs across Africa and in Canada. An array of activities, including research, teaching and outreach related to 4IR and AI are taking place at our different hubs. Each of these activities ties directly or indirectly, to Open AIR’s goal of creating explorative knowledge of the developmental implications of AI, specifically in Africa.

Through thematic research on high technology hubs, informal innovation, and indigenous entrepreneurship in Africa, Open AIR is taking steps toward advancing an emerging research agenda on AI for development. With this research, we are tackling questions related to AI and gender equality, AI’s future impacts on youth employment, and the inclusion of marginalized communities in African AI policies.

This series will give an overview and the highlights of our ongoing research into these topics on both the African continent and across the globe.

Open AIR Research into 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies and Artificial Intelligence: North Africa

In part one, we first turn to our Northern African hub, the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

 A2K4D: Expanding Global Discussions

A2K4D’s research on knowledge, technology, data and development has expanded to include open data, AI and development in the Global South. A2K4D’s 4IR and AI activities to date  include giving presentations, participating in workshops, writing blog posts, and producing publications. In November 2017, A2K4D’s Founding Director, Open AIR Co-Principal Investigator (PI), and Open AIR’s metrics Theme Leader, Nagla Rizk, and her former Senior Researcher, Stefanie Felsberger, participated in the AI & Inclusion Symposium, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The summit was organized by the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers and hosted by the Institute for Technology and Society in Rio. Through A2K4D’s participation at the symposium, Rizk and Felsberger sought to introduce the concerns of countries like Egypt to the global debates around AI and inclusion.

In response the first keynote address, “Coming to Common Understandings of AI & Inclusion,” Rizk spoke about how AI can be used for positive goals, with a particular focus on localized knowledge creation for development in the Global South. On day two of the summit, Felsberger participated as a panelist in a deep dive on “Data and Economic Inclusion,” where she talked about ways to rethink the power imbalances between technology users and producers. Links to the talks can be found here:

AI for Development

Following participating in the AI & Inclusion Symposium in 2017, Rizk participated in the AI for Good Summit, held at ITU in Geneva in May 2018. She was part of a panel discussion with a presentation entitled “Implementation of AI to advance the SDGs: Data for Good.” The panel was among a series of simultaneous sessions on “Implementations of AI to Advance the SDGs”. Bringing the Egyptian perspective to global discussions, Rizk drew on A2K4D’s interdisciplinary research to explore how AI can offer solutions to global development challenges. Rizk’s argument focused on the question of how AI could be a force for good for the entire globe and not just monopolized in the hands of the global north or a powerful few. She gave examples from A2K4D’s and partners’ work on open data. As the Middle East and North African node of the Open Data for Network (OD4D), A2K4D has a unique position of the use intersection of open data and AI for development. Rizk also cited empirical research conducted at A2K4D on devising alternate measures of knowledge and innovation in Africa, drawing on the Open AIR theme she leads on metrics. Rizk’s co-authored working paper revisiting the literature on innovation can be found here.

In October 2018, at our Eighth Annual Workshop, A2K4D’s Senior Researcher, Nagham ElHoussamy, moderated a session entitled “Ethics, Inclusion, and the Governance of Artificial Intelligence”. The main aim of the panel was to explore the intersections between ethics, inclusion, and the governance of AI, with a focus on local and regional realities. Panelists discussed areas of AI governance that can yield positive societal benefits.

This panel was part of the activities of the Inclusive Internet Governance Initiative (IIG), which is a joint initiative between A2K4D and Internet Masr, a local NGO. The main aim of this project is to conduct a series of activities and discussions to highlight the importance of internet governance for Egypt. The project focuses on identifying priorities of internet governance and establishing a platform for interested members of civil society, the private sector and academia. With these activities, the project hopes to take the first steps towards an internet governance forum for Egypt. Based on consultations with a range of stakeholders, the IIG team opted to establish two main tracks: Internet Infrastructure and Inclusive Growth, and Artificial Intelligence and Digital Transformation. Both fall under the overarching theme of inclusive growth and digital transformation. For more information on the panel, read here.

Within A2K4D’s Internet Governance activities, over the past year we held a public forum with AI stakeholders in Egypt. The government was represented by Golestan (Sally) Radwan, Minister’s Advisor for Artificial Intelligence, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology, as keynote speaker and participant on the panel. Radwan shared the government’s overall progress on an AI Strategy in Egypt and their short- and long-term objectives. A2K4D also conducted a review of AI strategies in eight countries, to determine which would be the most aligned with Egypt’s needs. This research is currently in the analysis phase and we look forward to publishing our results.

AI and Academia

In early 2019, Rizk submitted a chapter entitled Artificial Intelligence and Inequality in the Middle East: The Political Economy of Inclusion for the Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI, a publication edited by Markus Dubber, Frank Pasquale, and Sunit Das. This handbook will be published in late 2019, with Rizk’s chapter looking at the various challenges, opportunities, and tensions facing the equitable development of AI in the MENA region in the aftermath of the Arab uprising of 2011. Based on the research for this chapter, Rizk was invited to speak at the workshop “Translating Research on AI’s Impacts into Human Rights Advocacy” in May 2019 at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Additionally, Rizk discussed the chapter findings at a talk entitled, “Artificial Intelligence and Inequality in the Middle East:The Political Economy of Inclusion”, hosted by the University of Toronto’s Center for Ethics.

Further, as a means of integrating timely topics into her teaching, in Spring 2019, Rizk introduced a new graduate course to AUC’s Economics Department entitled, “New Technologies, Networked Economies and Inclusive Development”. AI and data are some of the main themes of this course and many of the course’s readings revolve around these subjects. The course explores how innovation and advances in digital technologies, including big data analytics, AI, and the sharing economy are transforming the economy, and, more broadly, society. As these technologies come to shape the future of our economies and lives, important questions persist on whether these opportunities are creating equitable growth or worsening existing inequalities.

Upcoming Research into AI

A2K4D’s forthcoming research plans delve further into the topics of 4IR and AI. In collaboration with partners at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI) at the University of Cambridge, UK, A2K4D will jointly host a Global Artificial Intelligence Narratives (GAIN) Workshop for the Middle East and North African region in October 2019. The joint workshop will be the fifth in the GAIN series, where workshops are hosted in different regions in an ambitious effort to examine how AI is perceived in different regions and cultures around the world. In addition, ElHoussamy and Senior Researcher, Nadine Weheba, are currently conducting research exploring law and policy governance structures of AI in Egypt, stay tuned for updates!

Open AIR Research into 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies and Artificial Intelligence: Eastern Africa, Part II

Monumental advances in technology are impacting human lives, including in Africa. Fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) feature prominently in initiatives conducted at Open AIR hubs across Africa and in Canada. Open AIR is conducting groundbreaking research related to AI and gender equality, AI’s future impacts on youth employment, and the inclusion of marginalized communities in African AI policy.

In part two of this series, we turn to our Eastern African hub, the Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology (CIPIT) at Strathmore University, Kenya

Partnering for Conscientious AI Policy

AI activities at CIPIT, under the direction of Open AIR’s high tech hubs theme leader and Founding Director of CIPIT, Isaac Rutenberg, encompass events and network building, and CIPIT has been leading the way on research relating to AI.

Strathmore University hosted the Artificial Intelligence for Development (AI4D) conference from 3-5 April 2019, which was organized by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Knowledge 4 All Foundation, and the UNESCO Chair in Artificial Intelligence. The workshop, entitled “Toward a Network of Excellence in Artificial Intelligence for Development (AI4D) in sub-Saharan Africa”, aimed to identify a research and capacity building roadmap, including devising strategies and possible partnerships as this network is established. More information about the event can be found here.

Rutenberg and CIPIT also participated in the AI for Good Conference in April 2019, which was hosted at Strathmore University in partnership with Access Partnership and Microsoft. During the event, Rutenberg stressed the commitment of Strathmore University to champion AI technologies in Kenya. During the conference, Microsoft also launched its whitepaper, Artificial Intelligence for Africa: An Opportunity for Growth, Development, and Democratization, which addresses the issue of the ethical use of AI.

AI and Africa

In May 2019, Rutenberg then participated in the “#AI4DNetwork Knowledge Webinar: Introducing the 2019 Government AI Readiness Index”. During his talk at the webinar, Rutenberg stressed that the index engages in a “self-selecting exercise”, since it does not account for African countries who seldom publish or update their progress on the Internet. Kenya, for example, was ranked highest in the Index, quite close to Tunisia, but their official websites do not discuss progress in the field. Online data is therefore unreliable for researchers to follow, especially when it comes to Sub-Saharan African countries. Rutenberg highlighted how AI is like any other innovation space, so driving factors or forces of AI will include large companies; that is, AI research comes from major telecoms and international businesses such as IBM and Microsoft.

At the webinar, Rutenberg also brought up an important concept, what he called “second-mover advantage”. This is similar to leap-frogging in that the Global South is presented with the opportunity to learn from the Global North’s mistakes. An example of this is the recent San Francisco ban on the use of facial recognition technology for surveillance purposes by police and government agencies. As for the threat of AI and job losses in Africa, Rutenberg proposed that the Western-centric notion may have minimal effects in Africa. For example, the cost of implementing AI drivers in Sub-Saharan Africa, would be higher than that of simply hiring human drivers, due to normalized low wages in the region. Further, Rutenberg discussed the question of AI and possibilities of exacerbated inequalities. In the webinar, he stated that the determining factor when it comes to this question is data availability, referring to data poverty in Africa. Data poverty refers to the lack of access to data and information. Rutenberg pointed out that AI is “useless if you don’t have large data sets”, and as a result much of the question relies on the availability of the data required to maintain the technology. More information on the webinar is available here.

 New Research Coming

A CIPIT Senior Research Fellow, Arthur Gwagwa, is undertaking new research on AI in Africa.  Gwagwa is currently conducting research for Open AIR on the law and policy governance structures of AI in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal. Gwagwa has given multiple talks and published several outputs on the topic of AI. He recently discussed “AI and Privacy: Challenges and Ways Forward in the Global South” at RightsCon in Tunis in June 2019. More information on this talk can be found here. Among his relevant publications are the following:

*Research at CIPIT on AI will continue, particularly focusing on the ways in which the technology is adopted (or not adopted) by various sectors in Kenya and the region. From manufacturing to government services, AI is touted as having the potential for wide reaching positive impacts. Whether such impacts will be realised is dependent upon many variables, and the AI4D Network will seek to contribute to our understanding of those variables in the coming months.   

Open AIR Research into 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies and Artificial Intelligence: Southern Africa & Canada, Part III

Monumental advances in technology are impacting human lives, including in Africa. Fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) feature prominently in initiatives conducted at Open AIR hubs across Africa and in Canada. Open AIR is conducting groundbreaking research related to AI and gender equality, AI’s future impacts on youth employment, and the inclusion of marginalized communities in African AI policy.

Through thematic research on high technology hubsinformal innovation, and indigenous entrepreneurship in Africa, Open AIR is taking steps toward advancing an emerging research agenda on AI for development. With this research, we are tackling questions related to AI and gender equality, AI’s future impacts on youth employment, and the inclusion of marginalized communities in African AI policies.

In the third and final part of this series, we turn to our two joint Southern African hubs, the Intellectual Property Unit (IP) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. We then turn to our Canadian hub, the Centre for Law, Technology and Society at the University of Ottawa.

Briefs on 4IR Tech in Africa

At the IP Unit at the University of Cape Town (UCT), fourth industrial revolution (4IR) activities fall under four tracks. The first of these takes off with a series of briefs on the intersection of intellectual property and compelling 4IR technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, with an emphasis on the African context. The first brief in this series will be available soon on the IP Unit’s website. The objective is to highlight key issues on the topic and include suggested readings for those looking to explore further. The team at UCT, under the guidance of Founding Director and Open AIR Co-Principal Investigator, Tobias Schonwetter, is also aiming to produce a series of blog posts and other publications based on this brief, hoping to garner further interest in the topic. Issues of gender in artificial intelligence are also under investigation at the IP Unit as a second brief. This brief will involve the team conducting scoping research on the topic while adopting a gendered perspective to knowledge governance and its relationship to data. 

AI and Education

On the teaching front, a new Cyberlaw LLB course was piloted in 2019 at UCT, integrating core elements of AI discussions. The course is jointly taught by Schonwetter, Bram Van Wiele, and Douglas Gichuki. It tackles topics such as consumer and data protection, cybercrime, AI consequential decision making, and ethics.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will also be a central focus of the UCT law faculty’s newly established Law Tech Lab. Founded by both the IP Unit and the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit, the lab aims to engage students and tackle legal issues pertaining to 4IR and digitization, as it unfolds in the contexts of Africa. Multifaceted inclusion, including affordability and access to justice in light of the 4IR are key themes.

4IRSA & the Digital Economy Summit

Open AIR partners at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) are active on several different fronts in the area of AI and 4IR. UJ is one of the founding partners of 4IRSA, a collaboration bringing together stakeholders from across academia, industry, civil society, and government in conversations and initiatives pertaining to AI and its impact on society. 4IRSA’s latest activities include the ‘Digital Economy Summit 2019’, which took place on 5 July 2019 in Johannesburg. Open AIR’s informal sector innovation theme leader, Erika Kraemer-Mbula, has been part of the Summit’s operations committee over the past year. The Summit brought together representatives from a range of national stakeholders and international experts in conversations about 4IR in the context of South Africa. The even particularly focused on inequality, in light of  ongoing digital transformations. The event garnered significant media attention, with speeches from prominent speakers, including South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr. George Friedman, geopolitical forecaster and strategist.

Leading the Way in Research

Kraemer-Mbula was recently awarded the DST/NRF/Newton Fund Trilateral Research Chair in Transformative Innovation, the 4th Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Development, which is a partnership between the University of Johannesburg, the University of Sussex (UK), and the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Kenya. The research program under her Chair started on 1 July 2019 and entails a strong capacity building component with PhDs, postdocs, and young researchers. It requires working closely with policy makers in policy experimentation over the next few years.  

Fieldwork is also underway at UJ, where partners are gathering empirical data on the different modalities and uses of 4IR technologies in manufacturing processes and the implications this has on skills development in South Africa.  Through firm level case studies, their research examines the incidence and use of technologies and skills as well as the challenges and opportunities faced. Accordingly, recommendations for education and the skills training necessary to prepare South Africa for the impact of the fourth industrial revolution will be put forward. Outputs are expected toward the end of 2019.

Canada, AI, IP, and Gender

In Canada, Open AIR’s hub is located within the Centre for Law, Technology and Society (CLTS) at the University of Ottawa (uOttawa). The Canadian hub of Open AIR mainly conducts research on the intersection of AI with the topics of gender and intellectual property (IP). These activities are driven by strong partnerships across Open AIR hubs and emerging projects with private sector collaborators.

A key area of research interest is the gendered perspective of IP and AI in Africa. One member of Open AIR’s New and Emerging Researchers Group (NERG), Akkila Thirukesan, has been conducting preliminary research into the areas of AI, IP, and gender. Recently, she travelled to Cape Town, South Africa, and spent a month as a visiting student at the IP Unit’s Hub at UCT. While there, she engaged with professors, PhD and LLM students, learning their insights on South Africa’s IP system. Her preliminary research has concluded that more focus has to be placed on the integration of diverse perspectives, specifically of women, in order for AI to beneficially contribute to Africa’s innovation and growth.  The absence of such perspectives could lead to AI contributing to inequality, not reducing it. Akkila wrote a blog post for Open AIR about on her initial understanding of this topic, which can be found here. Since then, she has been working cross-continentally with our partners in Cape Town, joining a gendered balance research team in the areas of AI, IP, and gender in Africa.

African Research Informing Canada

In addition, others at the uOttawa hub are exploring other IP issues around AI. PhD student Sarit Mizrahi, for example, is in the midst of writing a doctoral thesis on copyright in machine-authored works. Open AIR co-Principal Investigator, Jeremy de Beer and uOttawa JD student, Sara Crothers, are commencing work in collaboration with a leading AI company to analyze key AI-related patent families and their implications for business, law, and policy in both Canada and African countries. By learning from the research at other Open AIR hubs, de Beer and his team are finding lessons for Canadian AI policies.

We Robot Coming to Ottawa

In 2020, uOttawa will host the renowned We Robot conference. This will be the first time this interdisciplinary gathering will take place outside of the United States. Open AIR network members plan to participate and hope to inject distinctly African perspectives into the global discussions on AI-related academic and policy issues.

The Next Steps for Open AIR

Moving forward, Open AIR researchers will continue to find synergies between and integrate activities going on at each hub to advance our AI-related research agenda in Africa and globally.  The dynamic nature of research taking place at Open AIR hubs means 4IR technologies and their developmental impacts will continue to gain prominence within hubs’ individual research agendas as well as for the partnership in general.  

As the fourth industrial revolution unfolds in Africa, Open AIR hopes to work with stakeholders on relevant empirical research to help shape science, innovation, and technology policy-making to the benefit of Africa. Globally, Open AIR researchers hope to continue to bring the voice of Africa to global technology debates on this cross cutting subject, impacting all aspects of our daily lives.

By forging new partnerships and collaborations, Open AIR will also continue to develop new scholarly insights, policy recommendations for governments, and best practices for businesses around AI and other 4IR technologies.

This article was originally published on OpenAIR as a series at: and:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s