Artificial Intelligence, Innovation and Inclusion: What Prospects for the Middle East and Africa?” Ninth Annual Workshop of the Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D)

By Nagham El Houssamy

The Access to Knowledge for Development Center (A2K4D) at the School of Business of the American University in Cairo (AUC) hosted its Ninth Annual Workshop on Monday, October 14, 2019 at Oriental Hall, AUC Tahrir Campus. This year’s workshop was titled “Artificial Intelligence, Innovation and Inclusion: What Prospects for the Middle East and Africa?” The workshop’s three panel discussions explored our research on the developmental prospects of innovation and the new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Middle East and Africa. Joining us at the workshop were our partners from academia, policy making, civil society and students from Egypt and elsewhere.

The workshop kicked off with a warm welcome from A2K4D’s founding director Dr. Nagla Rizk, who stressed the importance of the Center’s research in providing a narrative of the Middle East and Africa, and bringing our voice to global debates.  In his opening remarks, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the School of Business, Dr. Samer Atallah, reiterated the role of A2K4D in putting Egypt on the global map of scholarship, and contributing to the School of Business’ research portfolio. This year, we welcomed colleagues from Algeria, Canada, Egypt, Kenya, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

Rizk shared with the audience the different networks of research A2K4D is part of. These networks include the Access to Knowledge Global Academy (A2KGA) founded by A2K4D and Yale Law School’s Information Society Project and connects academic centers around the world with the goal of advancing access to knowledge through research, capacity building and engaging academics, policy makers and other members of society. A2K4D is also a participating center within the Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers (NoC), anchored by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. NoC is a collaborative initiative among academic institutions with focus on interdisciplinary research on the development, social impact, policy implications and legal issues concerning the Internet. A2K4D is also a member of the CopyrightX teaching affiliate network, in partnership with Harvard Law School. In addition to this, A2K4D is the North African Hub of the Open African Innovation Research Partnership (Open AIR) and the Center is the founding noted of the Middle East and North African chapter of   the global Open Data for Development (OD4D) network. Rizk also introduced and welcomed our newest partnership with the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

The first workshop panel, titled “Fourth Industrial Revolution: Artificial Intelligence and Inclusive Development in the Middle East and Africa” brought together colleagues from the Open African Innovation Research Partnership (Open AIR) to showcase Open AIR’s multifaceted activities, including ongoing and planned research on the subject. The panel was moderated by A2K4D’s Associate Director for Research, Nadine Weheba, who was joined by Dr. Nagla Rizk, Dr. Tobias Schonwetter from the Intellectual Property Unit at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Dr. Isaac Rutenberg from the Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology at Strathmore Law School in Kenya, and Dr. Florian Martin-Bariteau from the Center for Law, Technology and Society at the University of Ottawa in Canada. The panel was structured around central questions raised by Weheba. She asked what the key challenges for AI and inclusive development in different regions of Africa are, how these challenges can be mitigated, and how Open AIR research efforts can contribute to AI for inclusive development.

Based on her upcoming chapter for the Oxford Handbook of AI Ethics, titled “Artificial Intelligence and Inequality in the Middle East: The Political Economy of Inclusion” (forthcoming 2020), Rizk stressed that a key challenge for the MENA region is inequality, which is due to a number of reasons. With the emergence of AI in the region, it is crucial to ensure that inequality is not exacerbated and that the process of designing algorithms is an inclusive one. Schonwetter went on to add that data bias and outdated laws and policies are other crucial challenges on the African continent. Rutenberg turned to education as the main challenge for AI and inclusive development in the region, whereby locals lack proper training and education in the field of AI. This is a key challenge that needs to be overcome to ensure that the types of AI created and used in Africa are context specific. Martin-Bariteau presented the global North’s view, saying that a major challenge Canada faces is digital inclusion and digital literacy, which will lead to further inequalities if not properly addressed. Proper governance and legal frameworks are needed to ensure that inclusive data is incorporated in the development of AI. Upcoming Open AIR research aims to touch on all these challenges, and find ways to mitigate them, via exchanging global north and south experiences as a means of knowledge sharing. For more information on Open AIR AI research, check out our other blog post.

The workshop’s second session showcased perspectives from the Middle East and North Africa on narratives of AI from the region and beyond. Moderated by A2K4D’s Researcher Hana Shaltout, the panel was a great opportunity to examine the discourses, perceptions, portrayals and attitudes towards AI and its related concepts across the region. This discussion was part of the Global Artificial Intelligence Narratives (GAIN) Project in partnership with Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI) at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Shaltout was joined by Dr. Stephen Cave, Executive Director of CFI; Assia Boundaoui, the Artistic Director of the Inverse Surveillance Project; Yasser Bahjatt, co-founder of Yatakhayaloon: the League of Arab Sci-Fiers; and Dr. Hosam El Zembely, the founder of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction. The session presented alternative narratives on how the concept of the “future” and “AI” has been portrayed in both Arab science fiction as well as cultural productions from the anglophone world, and how important imagination, storytelling, and narratives are. 

Cave gave a talk titled, “Imagining the Future with AI,” with a specific focus on AI and Gender, in which he took the audience through a historical journey of how AI has been conceptualized and imagined in cultural avenues such as literature and film, and highlighting the problematics with those representations. In her talk titled “Islamic Futurism and AlAndalus as Site of Radical Imagination,” Boundaoui discussed the idea of cultural and artistic production in the Muslim and Arab world with a specific focus on how science fiction has the capacity to shape our imagination of the future, and how an intersectional lens is crucial for that. As the co-founder of Yatakhayaloon, Bahjatt spoke about Arab science fiction and the discourses surrounding scientific discoveries and technological innovations and their relationship to science fiction. El Zembely shed light on the organization he founded, the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, giving an overview of science fiction literature from the Arab world, and the themes that emerge from that. Additionally, he gave an overview of how artificial intelligence has been tacked in that literature.

The evening’s last panel centered around the launch of A2K4D’s Alternative Innovation Measurement (AIM) Lab. The Lab builds on A2K4D’s research led by Rizk since 2012 developing alternative methodologies for measuring innovation in developing countries, which is typically not captured by mainstream metrics, as highlighted in Open AIR’s working paper “Towards an Alternative Assessment of Innovation in Africa.” A2K4D’s AIM Lab is supported by AUC’s Centennial Lab Initiatives and the Office of the Associate Provost for Research, Innovation and Creativity at the American University in Cairo.  Dr. Alaa El Din Adris, Associate Provost for Research, Innovation and Creativity, joined Rizk and A2K4D research assistant Dana El Bashbishy on the panel for the launch of the lab. As this is AUC’s centennial year, Adris stressed the importance of being future-oriented and engaging in community-based research. He explained that A2K4D’s AIM Lab is one of many other centennial labs created with the aim of developing into larger research endeavours. Rizk went on to explain the rationale for the AIM Lab, pointing to the importance of grounds-up research in Africa and the Arab world. She explained that there is an abundance of uncaptured informal innovation taking place in both the informal and formal sectors of the economy, and this research efforts aims to capture this invisible innovation.

The AIM Lab is an umbrella for various different partnerships existing at A2K4D looking at alternative means of assessing innovation. Along with Open AIR, the A2K4D is working with the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology  and engaging in discussions with the World Intellectual Property Organization on the subject. The lab also receives academic guidance from MIT Professor Eric Von Hippel.  A2K4D hosted Professor Von Hippel in March 2019, where he gave a well-received talk to the AUC community and garnered further interest in the subject.

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