Strive Masiyiwa and James Manyika | Dialogues on Technology and Society | Ep 2: AI & Africa
(soft upbeat music) - So, Strive, thanks for making the time. For the last 30, 40 years, you've done an extraordinary range of things at the intersection of technology, transformational change in Africa, and in many other places too. Where does that come from? Well, why did you focus your life's work at that intersection of technology and society in that way? - I trained as an engineer. I was fortunate enough to... As we were finishing university, people like Bill Gates were beginning to work on microcomputers.
And we were all thinking, "Wow, this is it." And so, it's really the training. But of course, being an African, I went home to my home country, Zimbabwe, after studying in Britain, hoping to help in the reconstruction of our country as an engineer.
My own particular discipline was telecommunications which was about to undergo an incredible revolution. - You probably should describe this. What was the state of telecommunications in Zimbabwe at that time? - Well, Zimbabwe was considered, James, believe it or not, to be one of the best in Africa at the time. 0.7% of our population had access to the telephone,
and that was twice the continental average at the time outside of South Africa and North Africa. So basically, there were no telephones. I mean, I worked for the telephone company, and the official waiting list was 14 years for a telephone. - To get a line? - To get a line.
So, it was pretty cool walking down the street as a telephone engineer because everybody wanted to get a telephone line off you. - So, what did you do then when you went back home? - When I went back home, I worked for the telephone company. Then the digital revolution began to emerge particularly around mobile phones.
I decided to be an entrepreneur 'cause I noticed that no one was particularly interested in adopting the technology. So, I set up my own mobile telephone company and tried to persuade the authorities that would be that this was the future and they kicked me out, and we ended up in a terrible dispute over it. But look, it shows you what can happen. People feel threatened by new technologies, and it can either be ordinary people or even those in authority. I don't think they did it so much out of malice but out of fear of a technology that they saw in the hands of private entrepreneurs. After that, I helped, I almost became like an evangelist for mobile telephony.
And went around the continent establishing mobile businesses, including, of course, in Nigeria, Africa's biggest country. I made the first mobile phone call in Nigeria. - Is that right? - I did, yes. - What year was this? - I did Nigeria 2001.
So, I'm kind of the Graham Bell there. (both laughing) - Well, clearly over the years, what you did became an incredible commercial success. An entrepreneurial success. But I'm particularly interested in how did you see the impact of all of that on transforming society and what the possibilities could be for people? - If you look at the impact on Africa, James, it's been extraordinary. The majority of our people, 75% of the population had never heard the telephone ringing, nevermind using one. Fast forward to today, the telephone density in Africa, people having a mobile phone in their hands, is in excess of 80% of the population.
- Wow! - Rich and poor, everybody has a mobile phone. I've seen data which suggests that that was the single largest impact on the GDP uplift. - I wanna come back to a conversation that I think you and I had in about 2015 or 2016. I remember the moment very clearly, we're in Johannesburg- - Yeah. - And we're having a conversation about AI. For you, when did you start paying attention to AI that this could be quite interesting and remarkable? - I think, James, to be fair to you, it was in those conversations. Okay?
I was beginning to realize at that point that, "Oh my God, this is here now. This is not something in the future." And remember I was interrogating you to say, "Okay- - You were, yes you were- - Who's in this? Who should we be talking to?" And then I think by about 2017 I began to assemble my first teams. - I actually remember this well, 'cause I think some of your team members reached out to me asking me what they should read. - Yes.
- Because you'd ask them the questions. - I remember this. - Yeah. Yeah. - Let me ask this, 'cause I wanna learn more about some of the things you're doing now. But, as an engineer as somebody who's watched trends and transformational technologies all the way from mobile, you were very early. At the time, you're an innovator.
In your mind, what do you compare AI to? Do you compare it to the mobile revolution, to the internet? What's the right way to think about the possibilities here? - You know, with all humility, I've been saying to people for a while that I look at the internet, I've been looking at my parallels being the internet as a trend. And I say, "Okay, we are probably run, for some of us, probably this about 1998." The media's beginning to talk about the internet. Okay? But some of us have known about things going on- - Right! - In the background- - For a while, you know. - Yes, right! - And we've just suddenly hit the browser wars.
(person laughing) Turns out to have been just a phony war, (person laughing) because Google hadn't been born. The e-commerce hadn't been born. Okay? Those big applications.
Today, everything is the internet. What do we do without the internet? But I think that underestimates this. - It underestimates it? - I think so. I don't think, I'm not gonna use that anymore. I'm not gonna use the internet anymore. I'm gonna start talking in terms of the industrial revolution, okay? This is 1850, really, when you parallel with the Industrial Rev...
AI is as big as the Industrial Revolution in its impact. Where it compares with the internet is the speed, 'cause you and I know, the Industrial Revolution took a long time. - Yeah. - To get going, and really... - Right. - But this is gonna be five, 10 years, all that change compressed.
Now, it compares with the internet. Okay? What does it mean? If we were having this conversation on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, and you're saying, "What does it mean to jobs, everything? What does it mean to the cotton industry? What does it mean to this? What did the Industrial Revolution..." Well, this is that revolution.
- So, let me ask you the following question. What are you most excited about, and what are you most anxious about? - Look, as an entrepreneur, goodness me, this is as exciting as it gets. But, I've heard genuine voices of concern from many of our own peers. And I share many of those concerns, much as a result of the fact that we just don't know enough about what it means, what's gonna come out of it, what the potential is.
So, naturally there are threats associated with this. And just like the industrial revolution that I compared us with. Industrialization left many behind, particularly in that transition. And the world went through major social, and political change, governance change, revolutions, and one might say, played into some of the great wars that happened. And certainly, the great divide that took place across the world for 70 years or so, okay? So we have to be concerned because we know what happened before, about how we manage and transition towards this.
I also worry about the fact that if you take five people and you put them in the room, and you say, "What is AI?" You are going to get five wildly different answers. That is dangerous. Okay? Because you just need a very small problem to occur.
And everybody will say, "Shut it down", when it would've been something that was not that serious an issue. So, it is incumbent on us to make sure people fully understand what this is and what this isn't. And also, admitting when we don't know. (person laughing) Okay? And exercising the necessary caution and responsibility. - One of the things that I and we think a lot about is this question of, on the one hand, the possibilities are so exciting.
- Yeah. - Whether it's in science, in addressing all kinds of challenges in society and so forth, but at the same time, there are some complexities and risks- - That we have- - Yeah! - To pay attention to, and it's kind of both. And you're right, some of these are still research questions- - Yeah. - We don't fully understand.
And so there's still more research to be done, more work on safety and all these questions. I'm particularly interested in this question of both opportunities and challenges. Speak as an African, how do you think about this in the context of the global south, places like the continent of Africa? - I can see the opportunity at one level, but it's not inevitable that we'll be a part of this opportunity. Okay? Some things we have to do, and others will require that we are allowed to fully participate. - And by participate, say more.
Do you mean helping to develop the technology, or get the benefits of using the technology or both? - We don't want to be users anymore than we want to be used. Okay? We want to fully participate in the economic opportunity. - What would that look like? - We have to be able to build our own enterprises. We all have to be able to... Our own entrepreneurs must feel they're a part of this, that we are creating wealth, that we're not just users of platforms and systems where others are of the economic benefit.
Otherwise, that would be a very angry world. We have to make sure that our young people... Remember, our mean age is 19.7. We're the youngest continent in the world.
In the next 25 years, we will be easily the world's largest population. We'll be somewhere 22-23% of the global population. And by the turn of the century, some numbers are saying, we could be as much as 40% of the world's population.
Yet a lot of the conversations, we are left out. you can, have a whole conversation, and then somebody just has to say, 'Okay, has somebody gotta say something about Africa or not?" That's a very dangerous place to be in because it creates resentment and suspicion. And so, we need to make sure that Africa is participating in the conversation, and resources are being availed and opened up. We are seeing no investment at all with respect to AI coming into Africa.
No one is interested really from outside. So, the activities that is taking place is either taking place with well established companies like ours, but certainly at the entrepreneurial level... Remember, the amount of foreign direct investment coming into Africa today is less than Singapore.
More money comes into Africa from diaspora remittances, from Africans like you and I working outside, than is available as investment. Okay? So it's not that our people don't have ideas. There's no capital coming in to support those ideas. And so, they feel left out. And the consequences will be, we could face major challenges in creating employment opportunities that emerge from this. We have an education system that doesn't deliver on maths and science.
Okay? We've gotta invest heavily just in that basic maths and science for our people to fully participate in this extraordinary opportunity. - If I think about some of the digital opportunities for Africa, one of the thing that's made it difficult is the broad based infrastructure investment, not just compute for AI, but just infrastructure, period. And I know that's something you've been working on quite a bit, just even bandwidth. I mean, you've made investments into still telecommunications capacity.
Say more about the kinds of things you'd like to see happen if Africa's gonna fully participate. - Yeah, so, just talking of ourselves, James, in the last 15, 20 years, I pivoted away from investing in mobile phones. People bring me mobile licenses. I say, "Thank you very much. I did that in 1995."
- Right. - I'm not in that game. I'm building digital infrastructure to take us to the next level. So, if we're gonna provide connectivity for things like 5G networks, high-speed broadband, one of the first things we needed to put in place was the plumbing, the fiber network.
We've built one of the largest fiber networks in the world. - It's almost on Cape to Cairo, almost. - More than Cape to Cairo. Because Cape to Cairo is 13,000 kilometers, or something like this by fiber anyway, but we've built over a hundred thousand kilometers of fiber, connecting virtually all the countries together.
And in those countries, wiring cities, connecting towns, connecting schools. We've got programs to connect schools to the internet because we understand the need for that basic core infrastructure on which others will go on to build the services and the applications. We've focused on putting in data centers. We've been building data centers to enable people like Google to come in and build the service layers. So, we've built in all the major cities now around the continent, and we've target to do about 25 major cities in the next three to four years. - Wow! - Building renewable energy systems to ensure that all this is in place in the hope that if we build it, others will come in, the next generation, the young entrepreneurs, plus global partners will see Africa as an easier place to invest and build on.
- So, I have to tell you, I mean, it's been extraordinary seeing some of the incredible excitement and entrepreneurial energy and interest in AI on the continents. I remember I was in Rwanda last year and just seeing the excitement. We've opened up an AI research center in Ghana- - Yeah. - For example. And this is actually doing, I think, extraordinary groundbreaking research. And it's just incredible to see the energy.
I mean, I'm struck by the fact that the growth of the developer ecosystem in Africa is actually quite phenomenal. Finding ways to have Africa set up the right partnerships, collaborations to capture this opportunity, is something we all have to work on. Again, I'm just curious, one of the tensions, of course, is when it comes to developing these systems, open source has been an incredible mechanism to get entrepreneurs, startups, innovators, to build, tinker, develop amazing systems. And I'm curious, what you think about that in terms of the possibility of harnessing the power of open innovation, open source collaborations, et cetera, as a way to get to AI opportunities and include everybody. - Given the little that I know, and I'm humble enough to say, I don't know enough about AI, and so, I welcome, for instance, the initiative by the key industry leaders in the US like Alphabet to go and engage the government on how we regulate.
Okay? Because we have to be proactive, because we know what this could look like in the hands of bad actors. And bad actors have a way of spoiling things for everybody else. So, I'm not yet in a place where I can say I comfortably support open source. We need to know a lot more. We need more people to step up on agreeing to frameworks for management and control of these things.
Okay? So, we need to give space to bring a sense of responsibility and understand what it would mean to go to open source. - Yeah, and in fact, one of the things, at least the way we've been thinking about it a lot, and is this idea of we're trying to be both bold and responsible- - Yeah. - 'Cause on the one hand, the opportunities are extraordinary. - Yeah. - But at the same time,
the risks are quite real. - Yeah. - And the complexities are quite real.
But in fact, maybe the one thing to add to the idea of being bold and responsible is the idea that we should do this together. - Yeah. - It's gonna take entrepreneurs, innovators, governments, society, thinking this through together, I think, to get it right. How do you think education will benefit from AI? And do you see a role that AI can play in advancing many of the goals that you have, that we have on education? - There's a tool in our hands. It's up to us.
Like I said, technology's amoral. We can do good things. We can do bad things. Here's a technology that could help us solve, bring total equality to education, to ensure that a child sitting in Harare or Lagos could access the same quality of educational material in maths and science and other things through AI. Yes, there will be AI teachers.
We are gonna have to find a place where we can use this tool. Because there are 60 million kids out of school, James, not in school at all. And that's what we've documented. Okay? And half are in Africa. There is 400 million kids around the world who are in school, but not really. It's kind of a place you go hang around. Okay?
'Cause the teachers aren't there, the books aren't there, and so forth. Okay, so if we can get the connectivity and deal with issues around data, make sure we can get to a place with AI where we could begin to use it as a tool to educate those guys. So, for me, that glass is half full. (person chuckling) Okay? I don't want to think about what an half empty glass could look like- - Right! - If we don't address that, because the inequality would be amplified to a level that this would not be a... Because remember, we also have other existential threats such as climate. - Climate change, I know that's another issue you are- - Very concerned about. - Exactly!
So, James, you've been like a prophet of this for the last 25 years, you know, but what are you excited about now that it's arrived? - Oh, boy! Gosh, there's a lot that I'm very excited about. So, gosh! First, I'm very excited about the possibilities for this being a helpful assistive technology for people everywhere. And I mean, people everywhere. So, the kid in Mbare, in Zimbabwe, who doesn't know how to code but has an idea, this could actually help them.
So, and you talked about the farmer, so the assistive possibility to enable people who don't have access to things to be able to do remarkable things almost as a superpower- - Yeah. - I'm very excited about that. I'm also excited about the intersection of AI and science. I mean, there's so many scientific areas where we now are able to apply AI to make breakthrough progress. You look at the life sciences, - - Yeah. - You look at physics,
you look at mathematics, you look at materials, research and so forth. So, the possibilities in science, I think are breathtaking. But also, would say, I'm excited about the possibility of this technology helping people right now. Right? - Yeah.
- We talked about climate and sustainability, the fact that now we can use this technologies to understand wildfires better,- - Yeah! - To predict where floods are gonna be, to help people, to give access to people, to help people understand all kinds of day-to-day challenges. So, I'm excited about all of that. I am excited also about the possibility that we may actually get this right, but I think getting it right isn't just getting all this amazingly wonderful stuff, but it's also addressing some of the complexities and risks that you talked about. I think those are gonna take real work and effort to get those right.
So, we have to work on all of these things at the same time. But boy, there's a lot I'm very excited about. - Absolutely! - Thanks, Strive. This was great!
- Oh, great! (soft upbeat music)