Accra, the coastal capital city of Ghana, is known for its sunny beaches, busy maritime ports, and the magnificent Academy of African Music and Arts. Similar to other major metropolitan areas in the Mother Continent, Accra is home to a burgeoning technology scene, but none of the participants in this scene ever imagined that their city would host Google’s first artificial intelligence laboratory in Africa. As of June 2019, there are 18 Google AI Research Centers around the world; eight of them in North America, seven in Europe, two in Asia, and the most recently opened lab in Accra.
Ghana is not the only country where Google has an active development presence. A couple of years ago, the search engine giant opened a technology hub in the Lagos metropolitan area of Nigeria. In Rwanda, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences offers a machine learning university curriculum sponsored by Google. Nonetheless, Google has determined that AI will be the underlying technology driving the development of all its products, and this highlights the importance of the Accra lab.
To understand why Google is interested in conducting AI research in Africa, it helps to review the reason the company chose the mega city of Lagos to build its largest technology hub in the continent. Anyone who is familiar with Lagos will tell you that life in this massive metropolis is chaotically amazing from an economic point of view; nonetheless, its labyrinth of communities is kept afloat thanks to a fierce entrepreneurial spirit. Making a living in Lagos is not easy; this is a task that requires plenty of tenacity and ingenuity, and these are business traits that Google likes to see in technology hubs.
Problem-solving is the best way to advance the fields of AI and machine learning, and this is why tech firms such as Google, IBM and Microsoft are showing interest in setting up AI research centers in Africa, a region where there are many large-scale problems that need to be addressed.
In places such as Lagos, Google is tapping into the innovative spirit of business entrepreneurs whose limited resources do not get in their way as they strive to develop microeconomic solutions. In Accra, Google sees an advantage with regard to the solid track record of research collaboration between Ghanaian universities and their counterparts in other African nations.
The bottom line of AI research in Africa is that this is a region where machine learning projects will have more significance. An AI product such as Google Duplex, which makes restaurant reservations through a human-sounding voice interface, solves a “first world problem” for busy individuals who do not have time to make these calls. It’s doubtful though, that these are kind of projects that the Google AI Lab in Accra will be solving.