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‘AI knowledge will catalyse innovation in different sectors, foster economic growth’

Yomi Adedeji is the chief executive officer of Softcom, an indigenous software innovation company that has recently invested in Artificial Intelligence (AI) education in Nigerian schools, in collaboration with Data Science Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with Jumoke Akiyode-Lawanson, Adedeji speaks about the importance of grooming digital literate youths in this era of 4th industrial revolution, the importance of public and private sector collaboration for a digital economy, and the advantages that proliferation of knowledge on emerging technologies would bring to this economy. Excerpts.

Softcom is a software innovation company that deals with identity, payment, data and learning. Why then has the company made a decision to invest in supporting the growth of Artificial Intelligence in Nigeria? And why now?

With the advent of the 4th industrial revolution, we are beginning to see technology playing a more pivotal role in societal development worldwide. AI is in the forefront of this, and the potential of AI in the context of education is exciting to us at Softcom. We are passionate about education, the ways in which it can be democratized for broad access, as well as the role that technology can play in ensuring that students attain greater academic achievements. We therefore want to play a role in ensuring that students are equipped with the skills to thrive in a fast approaching digital economy.

Data Science Nigeria (DSN) aims to create 1 million AI specialists in 10 years. How does it plan to achieve this and what role will Softcom play in achieving this?

This is a commendable goal and we are constantly thinking of ways to support initiatives like this. For instance, we recently sponsored the distribution of free AI books to 250 schools in Lagos so that students can begin to familiarise themselves with emerging technologies in fast evolving societies. We engaged business executives in a masterclass on AI and Data, and how it can be utilised for business growth; we have also committed to training computer science teachers in AI and basic python programming so that they in turn transfer this knowledge to their students. In the near future we also hope to host or facilitate free AI workshops.

What is the distribution plan to make sure that the first AI book for elementary schools’ spreads across the country? And how is DSN and its major partner Softcom going to ensure that Artificial Intelligence and data science are included in Nigerian school’s curriculum?

Artificial Intelligence will most certainly dominate the future, and it is important we begin to impart this knowledge and build a strong foundation for the next generation. In partnership with DSN, we have engaged and distributed Artificial Intelligence book to schools in Lagos. However, to effectively spread knowledge on Artificial Intelligence and make it ubiquitous across the country, we would need to leverage on e-learning capabilities, which we look to deliver in the future.

Is Softcom’s partnership with DSN a long term one? If long term, would there be a sequel to the first published AI book, to ensure that the youths keep learning AI up until the university level? How soon should we expect this?

Education forms a key focus area for our organisation. This sector, in particular, forms the core in developing our nation and moving us towards a more prosperous future. DSN’s mission is aligned with ours in utilising technology to push society forward, and we would continue to work together with them to advance society.

What should other stakeholders and Nigerian government do to contribute to the growth of AI and robotics in order for Nigeria to harness the huge benefits in this aspect of technology and avoid lagging behind other nations in development?

There is a need for the private and public sector to collaborate in order to ensure meaningful proliferation of AI and other emerging technologies. I believe that the first step is for basic knowledge on AI to be taught in schools early on as part of the education curriculum so that it is not perceived as this foreign / abstract concept, and its benefits can be more widely leveraged. It is also important that this education be democratised such that anybody anywhere can have access to learn if they choose to.

Over the years of partnering with DSN in training and developing data/technology skills, would you say Nigeria is harnessing enough of the potentials in this sector, and do you think the understanding and adoption of AI and data science is growing at a considerable rate in this part of the world?

The adoption of AI and data science in Nigeria when compared with other countries is still in the early stages however, I believe we are constantly making strides. We are seeing more companies adopting AI for the growth of their business, and we are seeing a lot of awareness around the importance of AI knowledge from individuals even from an early stage. We must also commend the mandate and efforts of home-grown organisations like Data Science Nigeria, whose vision is to promote in-depth understanding of Artificial Intelligence in children from as early as 10years old; as well as global technology companies like IBM, Microsoft, and others who run free training and learning programs for Nigerians to further the proliferation of knowledge on emerging technologies.

How can we bridge the huge gap on data science, Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning in Nigeria to be on par with developed countries?

The gap in AI and other emerging technologies in Nigeria can be partly attributed to lack of knowledge as well as inadequate infrastructure. However, we are beginning to see more organisations advocating for AI, with others also actively leveraging AI as a solution for business and societal development. I believe the key is continued awareness and education; on an even larger scale, training on Artificial intelligence and creating opportunities for existing AI talents to be harnessed and engaged. We must also encourage the mind-set of paying it forward. Those who have the knowledge should seek opportunities and platforms to also share their knowledge and train others.

What are some of the opportunities that Nigeria can benefit from creating an educational scheme that will expose the younger generation to the relatively new field of AI?

We believe that there are numerous opportunities to be gained from education schemes which include AI. More individuals will be equipped with the skills they need to thrive in the fast-paced corporate world, and solve societal challenges. AI knowledge will also catalyse innovation in different sectors of the economy and foster economic growth.

 

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