Google Is Playing the Long Game in Africa, but Will Its AI Center Pay Off?

Company paves the way for deeper engagement with the continent's digital transformation

Google set up its first office in Africa a decade ago and has pledged to train 10 million residents in the next five years.
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Google’s forays into Africa have culminated in the announcement of the company’s first AI center on the continent, which is set to launch in Ghana’s capital of Accra later this year.

Google chose Ghana for its strong set of local universities in a bid to lure the brightest graduates. Ghana is also home to an office of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

We’re looking at Ghana, and more widely at Africa, as a location where we want to invest in new areas of interest,” Jason Freidenfelds, a senior communications manager at Google, told Adweek. “There are many talented researchers working on AI in Africa now, and it’s our goal to collaborate with them more closely by opening a location in Accra.”

The Internet giant is already recruiting local talent in machine learning and has poached Senegalese software engineer Moustapha Cisse from Facebook to oversee the center’s development.

Cissé previously worked for Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR)’s team in Paris, France. He will not be taking up this challenge alone, as he will be joined by Google senior AI fellow Jeff Dean, who says his passion for the project is tied to his own upbringing in Uganda and Somalia. The two executives have vowed to attract the most talented engineers and researchers, having promptly issued a series of calls for applications.

Like other offices who climbed aboard the AI wagon, the Accra center will specialize on a few AI properties. The initial team will focus on medical diagnosis and treatment; fairness in machine learning; and interpretability and understandability of machine learning models.

“In pursuit of those areas, the team will actively research ways in which to improve the state-of-the-art in machine learning, which includes contributing to the broader academic research community through our publications and academic support,” Freidenfelds said. “It also includes improving machine learning architecture—making it faster, better and easier to perform machine learning tasks.”

This decision is paving the way for deeper engagement with Africa’s digital transformation. The company set up its first office on the continent a decade ago and has pledged to train 10 million residents in the next five years.

As of now, 2 million trainees have benefited from the program, which is also supporting and guiding 100,000 developers and over 60 tech startups through its Launchpad Accelerator Africa. In 2016, the company said it was committed to training 1 million Africans in digital skills and that its charitable arm, Google.org, earmarked $20 million over the next five years to nonprofits working to improve lives across Africa.

Google’s AI Research Center is also the result of long-term macroeconomic forecasting. The company anticipates that by 2034, Africa will account for the world’s largest working-age population with 1.1 billion job seekers, despite only 3 to 4 million annual job creations.

Google’s objective is to fuel local economic development by fostering significant employment opportunity in the the Internet, technology and innovation, while equipping younger generations with relevant tools and and skill sets to stay relevant and empower their businesses and communities. For their part, Ghanian authorities are rolling out the welcome mat, regarding this initiative as an opportunity for local firms to leapfrog their foreign competitors and solve looming challenges in sectors such as healthcare, security, education, energy and sustainable agriculture.

Outside of Google’s head office in San Francisco, Accra will become the 11th city to host an AI center after Paris, Zurich, Tokyo, Beijing, Montreal, Toronto, Seattle, Boston, New York and Tel Aviv, Israel.

Google is playing the long game in Africa. But if it meets the objectives it has laid out for its new Accra location, the company will reap what it sowed.

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