AI readiness, deployment, and potential misuse all present issues, according to research conducted by MISA and supported by Mozilla

(HARARE, ZIMBABWE | THURSDAY, MARCH 21, 2024) — As governments, communities, and businesses across southern Africa continue to integrate AI technologies into everyday life, they face three key challenges, according to new research conducted by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and supported by Mozilla. MISA explored patterns of AI deployment in the sub-region, and how the lack of a regulatory framework hinders ethical AI adoption. The research draws on Zimbabwe's August 2023 election as a case study.

AI readiness, AI deployment, and potential misuse of AI present the highest barriers as AI systems transition from Western contexts to southern African contexts, researchers found. Methodology entailed a wide landscape review of AI applications across academia, policy, and business; an analysis of AI use cases; and also focus group discussions in Harare and Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) and Johannesburg (South Africa). Focus group participants included lawyers, academics, civic society leaders, activists, media practitioners, and other AI experts.

During the launch event on Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information and Communications and Postal and Courier Tatenda Mavetera noted the need for States to update their existing regulatory frameworks in order to keep up with technological advances. She said that the fact that most policies in Southern Africa were outdated was “causing fragmentation and duplication of processes within institutions."

Says MISA regional chairperson Golden Maunganidze: “To promote the sustainable adoption of AI in Southern Africa, capacity building and the development of local data sets are needed. This calls for the involvement of African innovators, policymakers, and academics in AI conversations to ensure solutions align with African needs and priorities.”

To promote the sustainable adoption of AI in Southern Africa, capacity building and the development of local data sets are needed

Golden Maunganidze, MISA regional chairperson

In addition to the research, MISA has also published a model regulatory framework for AI in southern Africa. The framework outlines how to ensure AI policy prioritizes principles like freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

This research is part of the efforts under Mozilla's Africa Mradi, to explore the intersection of social justice, technology, and the unique experiences of Africans. By prioritizing this work, Mozilla acknowledges the urgent need for support for different stakeholders in the development, use and governance of trustworthy and human centered AI and machine learning in the sub-region.

The report also complement’s Mozilla 2024 election work, which entails research into synthetic content detections, the tracking of platforms’ election policies, and more.

The Findings

AI readiness: AI readiness remains a formidable challenge in most Southern African countries due to insufficient AI-supporting facilities and infrastructure. The availability of reliable electricity, restricted internet access, and sufficient computational power are essential prerequisites for the uptake of AI. Several African nations continue to face challenges in these domains, necessitating significant improvements. It is imperative to acknowledge that the preparedness of a nation for AI also entails the acquisition of new skills or the recruitment of individuals possessing key abilities.

AI deployment: AI use is proliferating in the region, offering significant opportunities for socio-economic development — but significant knowledge and data gaps hinder ethical AI development, regulation, and monitoring. In terms of policy and legislation, many countries have a good legislative basis for ethical AI use. A clear trend exists in producing and adopting reports and laws that cite AI use in the context of the 4th Industrial Revolution. However, while policy development and the creation of regulatory mechanisms are underway to harness the benefits of AI in service of national development priorities, ethical risks and challenges exist that can exacerbate inequality and social instability if not adequately and timely addressed.

Potential misuse of AI: The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission implemented a biometric voting system to improve the nation's electoral process. To vote in the country, one would need to register as a voter with their biometric data. As a result of the process of providing one's biometric data, many voters were under the impression that the government could use their data to track them. During the elections in 2023, the ruling party boasted that they had used drones to record images and count the number of people who attended rallies held by the opposition, according to media reports. Another potential risk of AI is the manipulation of individual voting decisions before an election via targeted disinformation campaigns. Search engines and social networks spread information in ways that differ from the press. Search engines and social networks mostly present third-party material while providing little of their own. This means that even unprofessionally generated, different information can rapidly spread.