Creative, chaotic: If AI takes over the world, what will Africa do?

Saturday April 22 2023
An AI-generated portrait.

An AI-generated portrait. If AI is going to take over the world, what is Africa going to do to it? The future might just be exciting after all. PHOTO | MAO SIQIAN | XINHUA VIA AFP


At the beginning of the year, the company Open AI (haha, the irony!) allowed the public on the internet to use a version of ChatGPT, which was amazing. At the time access was free, which meant that the user is the product.

Still, for a couple of evenings here and there, I was happy to be a test subject, to see what kind of capabilities we were talking about here. After all, this one program was supposed to help us imagine all the ways in which human labour would become obsolete.

Of course, I wanted to interact with this AI to check on the job security of people working with language to communicate, educate, inform and entertain. After all, it told me itself a list of newspapers that already use AI to generate content, among them giants of the media industry that I would never have suspected would stoop so low. That’s why you hate those micro-articles by the way: They’re written by cheap bots, not beloved of eccentric people.

ChatGPT can write pretty well. And not just in English: it can write in a slightly stilted but perfectly acceptable Kiswahili too. Really nicely structured, short and clear sentences...and no rhythm!

Strong creativity

ChatGPT can’t dance. That’s when I realised why this kind of AI — at least for the moment — does not present the threat people say it does, at least not here. It is too clean, too neat and too reasonable. I don’t think ChatGPT and other language learning models are quite ready to breach the African natural defence against standardisation. We have, always will, have a balancing chaos on our side. The creativity is strong here.


Let’s take development in Tanzania as an example. We do things like build schools and forget to budget to attract and train teachers! Creative, chaotic. We want a Tanzania in which STEM will take off — except, well, we keep failing the majority of students who go through our derelict education system. Therefore, expecting a workforce of marginally schooled folks to just magically jump into the contemporary labour force and high tech? We have a parliament that engages in deep debates about… sports? And MPs who perform handstands during sessions. But the country runs. Creative, chaotic.

This is not unique to Tanzania, though our gift for subversion should be more widely appreciated. Technology doesn’t pass us by, we love the stuff, especially ICT. What we use tools for, though, is not predictable or linear. It can’t be: Modern African life is a mixed media work. We’ll cook on charcoal in the same household that is mining cryptocurrency via a jury-rigged electrical connection. The Great Unbanked found that banking with phone companies presented more security and less barriers than conventional banking.

I grew up on all the right movies about bad robots to instil a healthy fear of tech in me. But it wasn’t until I interacted with ChatGPT’s free version that it occurred to me that, oh, it’s not us who aren’t ready for Skynet, it’s Skynet that’s not ready for us. Especially not if we give it over to Kenyan hackers for a weekend of experimentation. If AI is going to take over the world, what is Africa going to do to it? The future might just be exciting after all. Creative, chaotic.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]