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Meet Africa’s Inclusive AI Community Solving Global Problems

Evan Tachovsky — Former Director & Lead Data Scientist, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation
Sarah Sakha — Former Project 55 Fellow
Dr. Aisha Walcott-Bryant, IBM Research – Africa, delivers the first keynote of Deep Learning Indaba.

This week more than 700 machine learning researchers from over 30 African countries will come together at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya for the third annual Deep Learning Indaba.

On paper it looks a lot like other artificial intelligence (AI) convenings around the world. There are keynotes from luminaries, talks from up-and-coming researchers, and trainings on new methods. But as we’ve worked with the Indaba organizers to sponsor the event over the last few months, we’ve learned that the Indaba represents so much more:

First, the Indaba is a hub and catalyst for Africa’s growing AI community. At The Rockefeller Foundation, we know that supporting communities of dedicated engineers can change the world. In 1956, we funded the Dartmouth conference that coined the phrase “Artificial Intelligence” and launched a new way of thinking about computation.

Today, the AI community across the African continent is at a similarly exciting moment. From academic research groups at places like Makerere University, to teams at Google-Accra and IBM-Nairobi, we’re seeing a new generation of talent emerging to solve global problems from Africa. The Indaba gives these engineers a place to meet, grow, and form new ideas outside of their home institutions.

Second, the Indaba is a vision of a future where AI engineers have access to opportunity regardless of their nationality, race, or economic status. Professional advancement in AI flows through a small number of exclusive conferences. Presenting at NeurIPS, ICML, or ICLR can change a researcher’s career, opening up opportunities in industry and academia. Work is underway to improve access to these conferences. ICLR 2020 will take place in Addis Ababa and Black in AI does amazing work to get African researchers to NeurIPS. But each year hundreds of worthy participants are still excluded simply because they have the “wrong” passport or don’t have the funding to travel.

We need more conferences and institutions designed with access in-mind. And that’s precisely the role the Indaba has grown to play.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we put data science at the center of what we do and how we serve. We believe that advances in AI can help us better understand problems and scale solutions because we’ve seen it happen through the work of partners like DataKind, Atlas AI, e-GUIDE, and Immigration Policy Lab.

But we are also clear-eyed about the harms these tools can do when applied without care or with bad intentions.

Making AI work for all people requires the two things the Indaba has in abundance: first, talented and ethical engineers that build tools alongside their communities instead of from a distance; and, second, a vision for a future where opportunity is distributed beyond a narrow set of people and institutions.

We are proud to sponsor this year’s Indaba and excited to learn from the participants. If you want to see the Indaba community in action, I’ll be live-tweeting the event @evantachovsky and you can follow along on at the hashtags #DLIndaba2019 and #SautiYehu.

If you’re attending the Indaba, stop by our booth in the sponsor hall and say “hi.” We’ll be running a survey about what datasets African researchers need to improve or expand their work and we’d love to hear from you.

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