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Death by Drone in Africa: A dystopian future awaits us if we're not vigilant

By Lynda Tilley

Lynda is a founding member of United African Humanists and she is on the Advisory Board Africa for Humanists Global Charity. In this article, she explores the rapid growth of AI in Africa. In this article, she points to some of the humanitarian uses of AI drones, but also warns of their misuse, leading to a possible dystopian future.

The 4th Industrial Revolution

Last year, the AI Media Group in South Africa published a report called The State of AI In Africa - the first such report to properly explore the impacts of AI across the continent. It stated that AI is growing rapidly and that it already impacts at least 120 markets across the continent. According to the report, the African countries currently making the most use of AI are South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya. These consistently rank as Africa's four wealthiest countries. One of the authors of the report, John Kamara, urged Africa to 'embrace and adopt AI, to truly be part of the fourth Industrial Revolution'. He went on to claim that 'AI can change lives in Health, Education, Deep-Tech, Research, FinTech, Agritech and Climate Change.'

What Is Artificial Intelligence?

What is Artificial Intelligence, exactly? Most people, when asked, say that it conjures up thoughts of Sci-Fi movies and aggressive robots trying to take over the world, or passive robots cleaning your house for you or cooking a meal. Espionage comes up a lot as well - hidden surveillance cameras, or robot-type insects, or birds with built-in cameras and voice recorders, tracking your every move and recording your conversations. In its simplest form, AI refers to the ability of computers, or computerized components, to 'think' for us and perform tasks which we would usually perform ourselves. The Oxford Dictionary describes AI as 'The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.'

Artificial Intelligence Is already all around us

Although we may not be aware of it, we are already surrounded by AI, and most of us use it on a daily basis, without perhaps even realising it. Examples of this are:

  • Google Maps and Navigation systems

  • Facial Detection and Recognition

  • Text editors or autocorrect

  • Search and Recommendation Algorithms

  • Chatbots

  • Digital Assistance

  • Social Media and E-Payments

An example of how AI can benefit us in Africa is the use of drones. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles, with no pilot or crew on board, which are controlled by an operator on the ground. They are much smaller than aircraft, are compact and light, and easy to fly into hard to reach areas. They can have cameras attached to look for things like missing livestock or poachers in wildlife areas, to warn us of fires in remote bush areas, or to carry much-needed medicines to people in remote areas for medical emergencies where time is of the essence - for example, getting anti-venom to the victim of a deadly snake bite.

Artificial Intelligence in the hands of terrorists

But what happens if drones fall into the wrong hands and are used against us by terrorists ? It may be too late already to ask that question: it's already started. The Institute For Security Studies published an article last year reporting groups which were already using this technology in combat, such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and insurgents in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Research is currently underway to find out how terrorists use drones. UN Security Council Resolution 2617 recognises the global misuse of drones, whilst the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism has developed a good practice guide in order to protect the lives of innocent victims. It states that it is aware of the adaptation of 'hobbyist' type drones (available online to anyone, for as little as US$450 each) into weapons. This is already taking place in Africa.

"Will life end up like a Sci-Fi movie - a 'battle of the drones'?"

Recommendations have been made for the tighter control of the availability of hobbyist drones, as well as border and customs regulations. But in order to control the misuse of drones, any laws put into place will have to be enforced. This will require equipment, manpower and training and vast areas will have to be constantly monitored. Drones being used as weapons will have to be identified separately to drones being used for, say, monitoring large wild life areas for potential poachers. How do we distinguish between the two? How do we intercept drones being used to destroy and kill if we can't reach these areas quickly enough? Do we send our own drones after them, to destroy them? What if they fly across neighbouring borders to 'hide' from us, if they're aware we're monitoring them and if we have no jurisdiction on areas outside our own borders? Will life end up becoming like a Sci-Fi movie with a battle of the drones taking place?

Whatever happens, the introduction and use of weaponized drones in Africa is a terrible thing as, once again, it is innocent victims who will feel the biggest impact and suffer the biggest losses, all due to human greed for power and control and disregard for human lives. We think we're advancing worldwide with the use of new and increasingly advanced technology. But we fail to see that it's also dragging us slowly backwards, replacing jobs done by humans with heartless technology with no compassion or moral compass and with the potential for increasingly deadly AI technology that seeks to harm and destroy human lives, rather than to protect and save them. If technology continues advancing at this rate we face the very real threat, even if it's centuries in the future, of the complete destruction of our planet and the annihilation and extinction of the human species.

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