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Western Technologies in Africa – New Colonial Powers

From Pia Behm

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Stock photos often show robots in white when searching for images for AI reports. (Image Image / Mint Images)

Pay via SMS and get credit in a few clicks: The African continent is a huge market for Western digital startups. But the products often follow the old ways of thinking of the “white savior” – instead of addressing the potential of the site.

Kenya’s digitalization is seen as a model for trying to overcome poverty in Europe through technology. Pay via SMS at the supermarket update, send money securely to relatives and get instant credit in a few clicks: Financial technology start-ups such as Safaricom or Tala appreciate the ability of Kenyans to finance the financial system this way without a bank account. But the truth seems less rosy.

“One of the consequences we see here, especially in Kenya and East Africa, is that people are going bankrupt. They have taken on irrecoverable debts,” says Abeba Birhan, a PhD student at the University College, which explores Dublin’s artificial intelligence, methods and knowledge.

The beginnings accept the role of former colonial rulers

Brihan critically sees the Western Fintech industry, which has found African countries as a market for sales: “While these credit mechanisms are being sold as a way out of poverty and a way to provide women with no access to bank accounts, people are being victimized by it. . “

Birhan calls this “algorithmic colonialism.” He finds similarities with traditional colonialism in the approach taken by technology companies. Institutions accept the role of former colonial powers. What they all have in common is a desire to dominate – by controlling central communication and infrastructure.

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“Like traditional colonialism, this ‘we-are-better’ mentality is here: ‘We help, we protect them, we are responsible, we take it into our own hands.’ The difference is that the technical colonization of the algorithm is very subtle and no brutal force is used. It is very difficult to see the nuances, “explains Birhan.

Ineffective, sometimes harmful technology

An AI product developed by a Western technology company is often not the perfect solution to a problem in an African country. If there is any problem.

“Because people in the West think of burning questions, and for that they create mechanisms, burning questions that are handled by different communities in African countries are not necessary,” the scientist distinguishes. “Because it’s a different environment, different culture, different people, different lifestyles. So technology is useless and sometimes harmful.”

There is a saying “white savior”

Like non-bank credit systems in Kenya, Birhan says. Instead of providing a way out of financial problems, the Fintech business model is based on the exploitation of poverty. Like traditional colonialism, rich people and corporations from the global north benefit from the poorer communities in the global south. Except that it is now done in the guise of “revolutionary technology”. There is a saying “white savior”. Existing site is ignored.

“It’s not just a form of colonialism, it’s also an obstacle to the inventions of local experts because Western technology and its infrastructure are ubiquitous,” says Birhan.

Artificial intelligence and robots appear ethnically white

Kanda Dihal of the University of Cambridge explains that there are also colonial structures that represent artificial intelligence. Among other things, he heads the “Decolonizing AI” project. Robots, language assistants or movies: Real and imaginary representations of artificial intelligence usually have white features.

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“Stories about artificial intelligence are visions of the future, of which there is no color. There are white people who are noticed by robots who appear racially white due to accents and facial features,” the researcher explains.

The first robot with citizenship: the white one

Developed in Hong Kong, Sofia is a man-like AI who received Saudi Arabian citizenship in 2017 after giving several interviews. It is the world’s first resident robot. She looks like a white woman. In films like Terminator or RoboCop, the technologies are embodied by white actors and actresses. Only in newer series like Westworld or Humans are the AI ​​characters very different.

When looking for images for AI reports, stock photos often show robots in white: “It is not clear in any way what the news article really deals with. For example, FinTech, Blockchain or drones. Or in general: AI’s abbreviation is therefore a Caucasian-looking white plastic robot.” AI researcher Dihal says.

The concept of intelligence is based on sequences

Dihal therefore said that when artificial intelligence is portrayed as a white person, intelligence is also associated with white people. He refers to colonial history here: “The concept of intelligence was invented in the 19th century to divide people into hierarchies, and to be more intelligent meant that someone was more human, and that women and people of color were seen as less intelligent and less human. This justified their submission.” , It justified their exploitation and they were considered unfit for self-determination.

Neither Abeba Birhano nor Kanda Dihalo found the problem in artificial intelligence. The technology is being used not only by Western technology companies, but also to its advantage. The “Black in AI” organization, which brings together black scientists to strengthen their presence in the field of artificial intelligence research, has also pledged to do so.

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Start offering what the continent already offers

“If the desire for AI to be effective in African countries is real, the starting point should be that you go there and learn what already exists. Maybe people don’t need the things you create. Or that things already exist, people already have,” says researcher Birhan.

In 2018, Google worked with farmers and scientists in Tanzania to understand the difficulties in food production. One problem is that the cassava plant suffers from disease. So they developed an AI that could detect diseases at an early stage, and it works on farmers’ mobile phones without internet access.

“One has to start from what the continent already has to offer. Instead of assuming that it has nothing or only problems, disease and famine. All of these negative stereotypes have to start by eliminating them. .