Interview: ‘Policy intervention can enable adoption of AI’

Mutambara said Government must support R&D in Zimbabwe’s development. And R&D, by definition, may not produce any money in five to 10 years. That’s how R&D works.

PROFESSOR of robotics and former Zimbabwe deputy prime minister, Arthur Mutambara (AM), unpacks the mystery of artificial intelligence (AI) for Africa and Zimbabwe at the recently held In Conversation with Trevor Ideas Festival that took place in Nyanga recently. Our senior business reporter, Melody Chikono (MC), caught up with Mutambara to discuss the AI revolution that has included global innovations such as ChatGPT, BingAI Chat and Google Bard. Below are the excerpts:

MC: You took us through the Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution and you touched on existing laws. Can you shed some more light on this?

AM: The issue is very recent, in particular, generative AI and the whole fourth industrial revolution. Our laws are behind. And law, by definition, is very conservative. So, for example, as I explained earlier, if someone was to build a drone in Zimbabwe, or let’s talk about a driverless car, will it be allowed on the roads? No, because there are no laws that govern a driver less car.

And if you do put it on the road, if there is an accident, you will be sued and the police will arrest the vehicle. Anyway, so what we’re saying is you must have a regulatory framework for AI which must be developed by sectors, and then the whole country, region, and continent. So, we can have an AI framework for the continent but for Zimbabwe and SADC. We must have policy interventions to enable and encourage the adoption of AI. That’s what I mean by frameworks, the laws, policy intervention to incentivise, and also regulate the use of AI, which is the role of the legislature, of the government, together with the private sector and civil society.

But, we need new laws, new regulations. We need policy interventions to incentivise the use of AI and drive AI. And remember, AI is just a tool. How can we use AI to solve poverty? How can we use AI to improve our education?  How can we use AI to drive our agriculture?

How can we use AI to solve the issue of load shedding, power, and energy storage? You and I have a duty and obligation to investigate and create those solutions because there’s no load shedding in Japan.

So, they will not discover who used AI for that because that’s not their problem. It is our problem.

South Africa has a similar problem so let’s have urgency in terms of using AI.

But more importantly, let us also own the technology. Let us also develop the apps because if you only use applications made by other people, you’re going to destroy more jobs.

And remember I said, there are destroyed jobs, modified jobs, and there are new jobs. If you don’t create the technology, if you don’t develop the apps, your destroyed jobs will be more than the new jobs and more than the modified jobs. And so, you’re going to have a crisis.

MC: In other words, you are saying we have to create AI that is specific to us as Zimbabweans and Africa?

AM: Yes. AI could be generic but the applications must be customised, must be bespoke applications. They’re called bespoke applications. But, we also want to be part of the whole of the knowledge development, of actual building the technology. But of course, it requires research and development (R&D).

Government must support R&D in Zimbabwe’s development. And R&D, by definition, may not produce any money in five to 10 years. That’s how R&D works.

But you see, if you’re looking for a quick win and I give you US$10 million, (as an example), you’ll want to see the money first. However, you might put US$10 million today and get nothing for 10 years and maybe something comes up after 10 years. That’s the nature of R&D.

So, the government must have that ability to provide what is called ‘patient capital’. Money where you put in there and you’re not expecting a return immediately. It’s harder sometimes from the private sector but governments must understand that. And private sector also must understand that you need to have patient capital.

MC: You think we have the capacity to have that patient capital?

AM: I think we have to understand the implications and the potential benefits of finding money.

The problem is sometimes we think it’s a luxury…It’s not a luxury. Actually, we can actually show the value proposition, how much more money you make, maybe in 10 years’ time or 15 years. So, if you realise that in the long run, it’s in your interest, financial and otherwise, then you do it, you will find the value.

MC: You spoke about developing AI in an ethical and responsible manner. Please explain.

AM: That’s a tough one because what we’re saying is there are so many dangers, right? So, we need ethics. We need responsibility. We need to manage our bad actors. That’s the problem with the AI. Bad actors. A thief who gets access to the technology. A cheat, a terrorist. And so, how do we mitigate? But, there’s no answer by the way.

I could be the terrorist. Anyone can be a terrorist. So that’s why it is very dangerous. I could be the cheat. I could be the thief. But anyway, you can try to mitigate and manage.

You can try to protect, and you must emphasize ethical and responsible AI.

MC: How best do you think we can do that?

AM: I think by first understanding the technology and also understanding global peace practices.

What are they doing in America, Japan, and Europe? What are they doing in South Africa? What can we learn? What can we learn from ourselves? What are our ethics? What are our values?

What’s our history? What’s important to us as a people? And then, we can use that to build a framework.

AM: Do you think we have capacity in developing AI and ensure its continuity?

AM: If we think globally, if we think about our people in the diaspora, we have people in America, Japan, and Europe who are actually doing this work. So, the government of Zimbabwe, the people of Zimbabwe must realise that the people in the diaspora are like money in the bank.

Why don’t you leverage your young people who are in Silicon Valley, who are at MIT, who are at Harvard, who are in Japan, who are in China, and say, ‘hey, guys, stay there, but can we share on technology policy? Hi, guys, stay where you are, but can you share on some ideas?’ In other words, if you look positively to your diaspora, they can help you with ideas, funding, networks, and investors. So, because of the global nature of the village today, there’s a lot of opportunity to live with Zimbabweans who are doing this exciting science all over the world.

Because sometimes we’re inward looking and we fight our diaspora. We don't work with them, we look at them and say, ‘ah, these guys, they will vote for the opposition’. So, you know, give them the vote.

No taxation without representation.

If you want the diaspora to send remittances, you want them to participate in the economy, give them the vote. Malawians are voting in the diaspora, South Africans are voting in the diaspora.

It’s not a technology issue, it’s a mind-set issue. We don’t want them to vote. But I don't want to emphasise too much on the politics.

I’m saying, if the diaspora has requests of ‘we want access to land, we want this and the other, we also want to vote’, give them that. Think of them as your people, not enemies.

MC: You said we can't afford to ignore politics. At the end of your presentation, you said all the other issues matter and included there is politics. How does politics come into play?

AM:  Because you know AI is great and technology is great, but if your governance is not accountable, conducive, and efficient, you’ll go nowhere. If there’s corruption in your government, city councils, and local government and provinces, you will not go anywhere.

So, AI is great, but it must be imposed on top of a successful and working governance framework. Governance is politics. The political leaders are elected. They’re elected for council, parliament, senate, for the presidency, and the president puts the cabinet together. The macroeconomic environment, the social political environment must be conducive. And that is political.

So, I’m not saying everyone must be a politician, but we must have some of our better minds, our smart minds, in politics. We can’t all be entrepreneurs and businesspeople, academics, and journalists, then say anything we can to fix the country. No. Somebody must do the framework.

Somebody must do the policy intervention, somebody must be a legislator, somebody must be in the courts, and somebody must be in cabinet. And those people must be efficient, those people must be accountable, those people must not be corrupt. So, politics is critical. Not all of us can be politicians, but we must incentivise and encourage others who are able to do it.

MC: You touched on governance. Zimbabwe is currently undergoing that debt clearance process where it’s engaging its creditors. One of the key outstanding issues or one of the key recommendations there is reforms on governance.  Do you think we are anywhere close to resolving this?

AM: Because anything else is superficial, we can talk about debt and this and that, but if the governance is not transparent, if the governance is not efficient and accountable, all the other things will be ineffectual. Even the adoption of AI won't work because we will be cutting deals and trying to short circuit the process. So, it’s so foundational that’s why I was talking about AI.

But, I wanted to make sure that we don't get excited about AI and forget that we need good governance. We need water. We need electricity. We need roads.

MC: But do you see us as Zimbabwe getting anywhere close to fixing this governance problem?

AM: Yeah, I’m an optimist. And we have no alternative but to sort it out.

Like I said, take it personally because we’ve never been respected in Zimbabwe until Zimbabwe is doing well as a country. So, it’s very important that we can’t be pessimists, we must find a way. We must find a way to sort it out. It might take longer but we’ll get there. We’ll get to the Promised Land.

We must realise that it’s everyone’s child. Everyone has a duty and obligation to fix our country politically, socially, technologically, education wise, agriculture, and mining. All the sectors, we must fix them.

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