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Top 10 Emerging Tech: an African Perspective. Genetic Engineering, Additive Manufacturing, AI
Utibe Effiong   Mar 18, 2015   Risk Science Center  

What do emerging technologies mean for a developing economy like Nigeria?  This is the second article in a series where I focus on the World Economic Forum’s list of the most promising emerging technologies for the year 2015. Here, I examine the implications of technological breakthroughs such as precise genetic engineering, additive manufacturing, and artificial intelligence, in developing economies such as Nigeria.


Precise Genetic Engineering

During the last yuletide, I talked about the Nigerian debate over genetically modified organisms in a piece titled “GMO food for Christmas”.  In that article I discussed reactions to conventional genetic engineering. Will improvements in the precision of human engineered genetic modifications change the balance of that debate?

Novel techniques such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system and RNA interference (RNAi) may bring on critical changes to practice of genetic engineering. These techniques are allowing precise and increasingly easy and inexpensive modification of genetic code in plants, animals, and potentially humans. They are techniques which may be increasingly available in an economy like Nigeria.

The Nigerian Senate recently passed the Biosafety Bill which seeks to establish the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA). The agency will regulate the safe use, handling and transport of genetically modified organisms and products in the country. Because the emerging techniques also promise to advance agricultural sustainability and adaptation to climate change, it is my guess that the NBMA, and related federal agencies, will be keenly interested in adopting them for use in Nigeria. Hopefully, in the near future, precise genetic engineering  will become available to remote laboratories in rural Nigeria.

Since techniques like CRISPR may be performed without the introduction of new genetic material, it is likely that they will improve the acceptance of genetic engineering.

Additive manufacturing

In the Western world, the concept of additive manufacturing, including three-dimensional (3D) printing, has been around for at least 35 years. Since the first prototypes were unveiled in the early 1980s, 3D printers have evolved to a point where many materials, even biological tissues, are printable in highly complex three dimensional forms – some of which are not achievable using conventional manufacturing methods. Indeed there is now talk of 4D printing which promises to bring in a new generation of products that can alter themselves in response to environmental changes, such as heat and humidity.

Three-dimensional printing only recently became available to people living in the developing countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. Even then researchers at Tanzania’s University of Dodoma note that the technology is rapidly gaining popularity. They believe that the potential of 3D printing to developing countries is huge. Given the right conditions, one can envision individuals in a small remote village in Africa using 3D printing technology to print basic household products to improve their livelihood and productivity. In urban areas, entrepreneurs could cheaply design and manufacture items that without 3D printing would need large upfront investing.

I suspect that the idea of bioprinting may not receive similar support. Even though the technology holds huge potential for cellular regeneration, tissue repair, and organ transplantation, it is likely to face significant resistance from conservative Nigerians. This opinion is based in part on the skepticism to biotechnology that was described in a recent article on genetically modified mosquitoes.

Emergent Artificial Intelligence

Advances in artificial intelligence are bringing technologies such as self-driving cars and automated flying drones closer to reality.  These and similar technologies would significantly improve quality of life and productivity in Nigeria. Self-driving cars are likely to reduce collisions, and resulting deaths and injuries, since intelligent machines avoid human errors caused by lapses in concentration and defects in sight. Cargo drones on the other hand will make it possible to deliver essential goods to places that are difficult to reach by road. Other non-lethal applications of drone technology include wildlife protection, humanitarian response, peacekeeping and crisis mapping.

However, emergent artificial intelligence (AI) technologies will have to overcome enormous obstacles in order to take root in countries like Nigeria. One challenge that isn’t perhaps so obvious – especially when the public debate over AI seems to revolve around the existential risks of the technology – involves infrastructure.

Whether used in self-driving cars, automated drones, or other autonomous systems, AI technologies require broadband internet for optimal functioning. Unfortunately, the existing communication infrastructure in the African hinterlands, including Nigeria, is grossly inadequate.  Self-driving cars also need good roads. They may be programmed to avoid collision but I imagine that the programming assumes reasonably well maintained roadways. Self-driving cars may not do as well on roads that a riddled with potholes as is the case with many Nigerian roads.

Cargo drones may obviate the need for roads but they’ll need places to be safely launched and to land. Hence droneports will be required to optimally take advantage of drone technology.

Dr. Utibe Effiong is the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center. In this role, Dr. Effiong runs Risk Without Borders, a unique blog which examines emerging risk issues through the lens of a developing economy.

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