How can we build AI that empowers children in Africa?

Reflections from participants of the AI and Children Workshop in Cape Town, South Africa

The Global Insight team
11 March 2020
Expert Q&A  |  8 minute read
 
These reflections were gathered at an AI and Children African regional consultation that took place in Cape Town, South Africa in February 2020. It is the third in a series of regional workshops designed to develop global AI policy guidance that protects child rights.

Photo of Hawi Bedasa

 

Hawi Bedasa
Regional Business Analyst – Technology for Development,
West and Central Africa Regional Office UNICEF

 

 

What challenges are there to more child-friendly AI in Africa?

Hawi Bedasa: AI is not a futuristic vision, but rather something that is here today. AI brings both opportunities and challenges. I believe the main challenge for Africa will be to strike a balance between leveraging the potentials of AI to improve the lives of children and young people while protecting their rights and mitigating the risks.

What do we need to do so that AI empowers children in Africa?

HB: Building on our experiences, UNICEF has a unique strength to improve the enabling environment so that the use of AI will uphold every child’s right to survive and thrive. We need to work with our government and private sector partners to develop a supportive legal and policy framework as well as create awareness and strengthen the capacities of actors so they can play their roles.

 

 

Photo of Wafa Ben Hassine

 

Wafa Ben Hassine
Independent Consultant

 

 

What is missing from conversations on AI and children?

Wafa Ben Hassine: I think different stakeholders like governments and the private sector do discuss children’s rights relatively often, but in the discussions around AI and machine learning and new technologies, including 5G, we often don’t talk about children explicitly...Children also have opinions and they also have the right to have opinions and it’s important that we, as adults, are educated enough to make correct design choices, for example, that children cannot make and protecting them from harms, but also allowing them the space to choose certain things as well. 

What are some recommendations for empowering children around AI?

WBH: I think the question I would ask even before then is how do we educate children about how AI works? Because I think that’s a challenge even with adults. Children now use computers more than we do in ways that we can’t even understand, but do they really understand the technology behind it? So I think your question almost has a two-fold answer and the answer is sequenced, so first we have to educate children about how AI works and I keep using the example of video streaming platforms -- how do algorithms that are proprietary algorithms that are used by those companies used to decide what videos the kids should look at before another one? So, explaining that and then giving the child the agency to make decisions about that..If we just tell children you decide where to put your data without really understanding what it means, I mean, if I was a child...if I had YouTube at the time and you ask me, ‘do you want to give YouTube more of your information so that it can curate more awesome videos for you?’ I’d be like, ‘yeah, get all my data, just take all of it’, but is that really an educated choice?

 

 

Photo of Shafika Isaacs

 

Shafika Isaacs
Research Associate, University of Johannesburg,
and Independent Digital Learning Specialist

 

 

What challenges are there to more child-friendly AI in Africa?

Shafika Isaacs: I think one of many challenges is the lack of awareness linked to a profound lack of trust about the conditions under which AI can give voice, recognition and power to children who experience poverty, marginalisation and exclusion combined with the real dangers that AI also holds for children.  This lack of trust stems from our limited success with promoting equity and social justice for children over our 20-year experience with educational technologies and children in Africa.

What do we need to do so that AI empowers children in Africa?

SI: I think we are still learning how to place children at the centre of decision-making in systems that are designed to marginalise their voices. In recent years, children across the world have been vocal about their interests and have demanded their inclusion and rightful place in decision-making. The emerging AI systems involve very powerful players who can thwart the rights of children. We need to build on the work of UNICEF and its partners to strengthen children’s voices, especially those struggling under the most trying conditions.

 

 

Photo of Onica Makwakwa

 

Onica Makwakwa
Head of Africa for Alliance for Affordable Internet / World Wide Web Foundation

 

 

What is missing from conversations on AI and children?

Onica Makwakwa: We haven’t been thinking about children beyond protection...beyond our parental guides to children, our parental desire to protect children. And so what suffers in that is centering the children themselves around what is it that they need from this excitement around AI, but also how do we empower them to self govern in this space? That’s a big part for me that’s really missing.

What are some recommendations for empowering children around AI?

OM: I think in a lot of documents we tend to still view children as our property, as our possession, our responsibility to shield and care for. But in order to unleash the full potential of AI, we are going to have to come to a realization that children have their own agency as well...You know, a lot of them are already interacting with AI and here we are sitting here thinking about how do we empower them? They could probably actually tell us a few things about that, right?...It seems like we only want to protect children and empower them in as far as is convenient to us, or makes our parenting easier. But how about we kind of change that mindset around empowering children for their own good?...So that if they are wanting to run for mayor we flooded social media with a whole bunch of their bathtime pictures, as parents do, do they have the right to be able to say, "I don’t want any of this information here because...I didn’t consent to it and how do I get a do-over of my detailed identity and imprint?"

 

 

Photo of Said Rutabayiro

 

Said Rutabayiro Ngoga
Division Manager,
Rwanda Information Society Authority (RISA)

 

 

What challenges are there to more child-friendly AI in Africa?

Said Rutabayiro Ngoga: A big challenge is the ‘illiteracy’ of the risks and opportunities around anything digital, including amongst parents and government officials. Beyond that, basic literacy is also low in some contexts.

What do we need to do so that AI empowers children in Africa?

SRN: If we can come up with really well articulated recommendations - like 1, 2, 3 building blocks - that tie to the Rwanda national plan and that are presented in one or two pages, that would help to embed the AI work into the various government plans. What has worked in Rwanda is consistently aligning with the long term master plan.

When it comes to digital and AI we still mostly focus on protection and only see the challenges. I like how the recommendations or principles discussed here also focus on empowering and providing for children — this approach is more inclusive.

 

 

Photo of Moses Otsieno

 

Moses Otsieno
Director, Cyber Policy Centre

 

 

What is missing from conversations on AI and children?

Moses Otsieno: African governments have not put children’s rights at the center of policymaking. For instance, if you look at the African digital strategy, it talks about very broad digital infrastructure projects, but then it forgets about the people who are supposed to be at the heart of policymaking, particularly children. And if you go down to specific countries in Africa, like Kenya, which recently passed the data protection act, Kenya has recognized that there is need to pay attention, but that hasn’t been enough. So, broadly if you look at the policy and legislative framework, it’s inadequate...The other area that I think is relevant is in terms of digital literacy...Kenya has a digital literacy program that is run by government. Those programs are massively underfunded, but also if you look at the actual literacy levels, they’re way below. Part of the reason also is because of internet connectivity which is largely based in urban areas. 

What are some recommendations for empowering children around AI?

MO: I think the first thing is to do is invest in programs that empower schools to be able to develop their curriculums, incorporating AI and children’s rights. So that would form a basis for educating children right from primary level of education to tertiary. There’s been an effort to do digital literacy, but again, it’s only targeted at higher levels of learning. The other side of the divide in terms of technology companies is to ensure that once we have developed the AI and children’s rights principles, we ensure that these principles are taken on board when developing AI technologies. And for that to happen, we need to ensure that there is an oversight mechanism...In many countries in Africa we have an ombudsman or a child commissioner or even the national human rights institutions, which are increasingly also paying attention to children’s rights. We could use such oversight mechanisms to ensure that on the side of companies that are developing AI solutions and the government departments that are implementing take into consideration the various risks that may impact negatively [the] development of children. But also to ensure that these companies as they develop and implement technologies, that AI technologies are transparent, people are aware about both the benefits and the risks.

 

 

Photo of Rowena Turinawe

 

Rowena Turinawe
National IT Authority Uganda

 

 

What challenges are there to more child-friendly AI in Africa?

Rowena Turinawe: I’m from Uganda and 72 per cent of our population is below 24. Needless to say the bulk of our population is young, so children should be our focus. ICT is growing, penetration is growing, the population that uses mobile phones - it’s where we’re going as a country. So, ideally, AI for children is something that should be a priority for us. However, in Uganda, at the moment, we are still grappling with challenges of infrastructure...we are still trying to do last mile connectivity, we still have challenges to access to mobile devices, we still have challenges to uses, because if you look at the statistics, men use phones more than women and if women use it, just imagine children. So the challenge we have now is just extending infrastructure and having people use it...So I feel like the challenge we have now in embracing or even taking up AI is because we don’t have enough relevant use cases that can speak to the government.

What do we need to do so that AI empowers children in Africa?

RT: I feel like if we build relevant use cases for governments, then governments can put its arm out and start to move...to support the AI. If you can demonstrate how AI can advance their goals, you get them on board in terms of moving infrastructure...If you can just have a relevant use case for the government's agenda, they will definitely support you in terms of infrastructure [and] policy priority. They will definitely change their agenda in support. Because now their focus is on "now, we don’t have infrastructure"... so AI would have to have a very strong use case to definitely push the government’s agenda. That would go a long way in helping...we just need to explain the potential...because right now their priorities are not AI. Their priorities are infrastructure, food, water, medicine. So, if we can find a way to make sure that AI can help children, enable children, or get the solutions, or to create the solutions for themselves, or to find ways to eradicate poverty, you know, to better their lives.