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Africa least ready to surf fourth industrial wave


Continent risks slipping behind in ‘frontier technologies’, UN warns

Africa is the least prepared region in the world to adopt “frontier” technologies such as gene editing, blockchain and artificial intelligence, a failing that could lock it out of the next industrial revolution, a United Nations report warned this week. 

The Technology and Innovation Report 2021, published by the UN Conference on Trade and Development on 3 March, warns that the continent’s lack of preparedness could exacerbate global inequality, and needs to be addressed urgently. 

The report gauges countries’ readiness to use, adopt and adapt frontier technologies, placing them in a “readiness index” based on factors including availability of skilled workers and ICTs, R&D activity, and access to finance. 

The best prepared country is the United States, followed by Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Singapore, the Netherlands and the Republic of Korea. 

However, Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, scores the lowest in the preparedness index overall, housing most of the world’s lowest-scoring countries.

The lack of preparedness is a concern as there is great potential for frontier technology application in Africa, the report notes. For example, Rwanda used robots in its Covid-19 response to screen crowds for individuals with a fever or not wearing masks.

South Africa is Africa’s best prepared country, followed by a handful of North African countries. However even South Africa, which has adopted policies to help it move to the fourth industrial revolution, ranks far below its fellow BRICS emerging countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China. 

Africa’s least prepared countries include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Gambia and Sudan.

The uneven preparedness globally could have “serious implications” for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and might even exacerbate global inequalities, says Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general. He urges all developing nations to prepare for “deep and rapid technological change” in his foreword to the report. 

Preparations will need to include adopting frontier technologies while continuing to diversify economies and mastering existing tech, while also strengthening social protection systems to safeguard workers whose jobs could become obsolete as a result of mechanisation. 

The report says international cooperation will be required to build stronger R&D capacities in developing countries, improve technology transfer, and promote inclusivity in discussions about the acceptability of frontier technologies. 

“Only a few countries currently create frontier technologies, but all countries need to prepare for them,” the report notes. “Developing countries, and whole continents such as Africa, cannot afford to miss this new wave of technological change.”