No. 224 – On Confidence

In the West and East, when you talk about how things got the way they are, you’re able to go back pretty far to start to weave that story. When it comes to Africa, those stories tend to be shorter, starting around the time Europeans got to the shores of Southern and West Africa. We got other peaks into Africa through historical figures like Hannibal, but for the most part Africa is dark.

“At this point, we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit” – Georg Hegel, The Philosophy of History

So, what does that leave us with? Our reference points for our history often start with times of trauma – the slave trade and colonialism. Over the course of five centuries, beginning in the 15th century, Black folks went through this experience of having our culture altered, names changed, being shipped off to foreign lands as slaves, and being divided into artificial countries. That trauma has evolved over centuries into differing forms – Jim Crow, assassinations of leaders who emerge among us, prison industrial complex, and more. Over this period of time is where we tend to start our stories.

In college, there was a professor who every time I saw him would say Sankofa or “go back and get it.” The word represents that concept of reaching back in history to learn in order to continue forward progress.

Over the several centuries since the beginning of the slave trade, black folks have exhibited incredible determination and ingenuity to make something out of nothing in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and wherever else you find us in the world. 
You see all this confidence in the way we dress, our music, and our language, and it’s beautiful. Yet, I worry that we still have so much trauma that hasn’t been dealt with, that even with all this confidence you see there’s so much that has yet to be tapped into because we’re not able to reach far back enough to see the totality of who we are. 

I’m not saying we all were kings and queens. No. There were complex political economies across Africa each with their own value systems, ways of organizing people into groups and more. There were wars. There were winners and losers. There was the development of technology. There was innovation. There was wealth. There was poverty. The point is that we’ve been here before.

So, while an African American person in the US can make the choice to say that what I know is my experience and that of my ancestors in the US, or an African person can keep starting the story with her country’s independence, there is more. If our DNA is drawing on memories that goes back generations, why can’t we do the same to find our stories and see how far we can go back to draw from? We need to get our full confidence if we’re going to move in this world socially politically and economically in the way that we’re capable of.

With our trauma healed, and confidence on full go, I’d love to see the kind of imagination we could bring to ensuring that black folks in this world are doing well. Not only that, we could play an even greater role in shaping the human experience on the whole. Look at the extent to which we’ve contributed to the human experience through our food through, our music, our dress. Imagine what we can do when we’re not trying to work through trauma and partial confidence to get to our creativity.

“We are the culture. Nothing moves without us.” – Jay-Z

Over the course of modern history, mankind has done some incredible things. The next time you drive past the Pentagon, just think about how quickly they were moving to construct that building in just over a year. In fact, Patrick Collison has this fantastic list of things that have been done fast. Just go take a look at that. 

My bet is that black folks who are connected to the complexity of our history prior to the slave trade and colonialism can bring an elevated level of innovation and creativity to not only build an incredible future for the time that we have on this Earth, but to also reap the benefits economically and exercise the power to shape a how these things affect our lives.

We can figure out creative ways of dealing with Earth’s changing climate from a vantage point that folks haven’t even considered. We can figure out innovative ways of developing oil pipeline technology while we’re still using the resource. We can build new industries that create jobs for the hundreds of millions of young black people across the Africa and the Diaspora in a fashion that enables them to build a good life where they are. We can figure out how to help the neighbors in the Middle East get along. We can do all this while being at the main table on the global stage and ensuring that the innovations that we bring to the table also reap benefits for our people. It starts with us tapping far back into our history.

“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” – Winston Churchill

No. 223: New Column!

I’ve got a weekly column I’m writing for Moguldom now where I will be writing about all things artificial intelligence and black people. I’m real grateful for the opportunity.

Here are links to the first couple pieces:

Reimagining Drug Discovery And Testing To Increase Genetic Data For Black People

What Does Neuralink Mean for Intellectual Property? Let’s Get This Issue Handled, Then Go Create

If you know folks working in pharma or intellectual property law, I’d love to get their thoughts on the pieces!

No. 222: Minerals, Electric Vehicles, and AI

Andreessen Horowitz posted this interesting conversation on cobalt – the mineral helping power our phones, electric vehicles, and more.

The conversation got me thinking about a piece I wrote back in 2015 (time flies!) on Jean-Yves Ollivier, Marc Andreessen, and the common interests they share in minerals that power the global economy.

There has been a lot written about how problematic cobalt mining is because of the extent to which child labor is involved in Democratic Republic of Congo where much of the world’s cobalt is currently produced. Companies like Tesla and Apple are working on improving the sourcing of these minerals.

While the adoption of smartphones is rapidly growing, we’re still in the early stages for electric vehicles. According to Clean Technica, about two percent of vehicles sold last year were electric vehicles to give you a sense of how far there is to go.

So, if the world moves to electric vehicles we could be consuming a lot more cobalt. In the piece I wrote, I link to a BBC piece on a city in Mongolia called Baotou. The city is a hub for the production of some key minerals in smartphones and other complex devices. There’s a lake near the city that is extremely toxic as a result of industrial waste.

We hear a lot about artificial intelligence and are moving towards the technology becoming more and more a part of our lives. Devices will come along with this: cars, sensors, devices connected to our brains, and more. Proponents of artificial intelligence say the technologies could create something of a utopia where we’re able to focus more on caring for others, the arts and more.

My worry is that this supposed utopia would be layered on top of an underworld like Baotou. I had never heard of the place before reading that BBC piece.

Perhaps we’re really moving to the singularity and an artificial intelligence-driven world like Ray Kurzweil says we are. Maybe Elon Musk succeeds in driving the global adoption of electric vehicles. If that’s so, we’ve got to be sure we’re thinking through to the outer edges of the supply chain to ensure we’re treating folks and the environment well.

No. 221: Preparing Our Kids for an AI World

My daughter is particular about manners. If you don’t say please or thank you when you’re supposed, it’s a serious problem. This is starting to extend to the Alexa device she uses to listen to audiobooks. She says please and thank you after the device follows her instructions. Numerous times she has corrected me for not using similar pleasantries.

The world in which my daughter and children her age are growing up in is full or artificial intelligence. Communicating with a smart device, recommended searches, GPS directions, and more capabilities we have involving artificial intelligence are normal parts of life for them.

So, how do we ensure our children have an awareness of artificial intelligence rather than thinking Alexa just automagically talks to them?

I recently ran across the AI for K-12 Initiative, an effort to map out a curriculum for primary and secondary school-age children to learn about artificial intelligence. The site has a ton of resources that I think will be helpful for parents and educators to take a look through.

Imagining the world my daughter will be living in 30 years from now is pretty overwhelming at times. Resources like this help me do what I can now to help ensure she’s at the table shaping that future. I’d love for your kids to be at that table as well.

No. 220: Convergence in Advancing AI Technology

Over 50 years ago, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel observed that the number of transistors computer chip makers were able to fit on a chip doubled every two years. Moore’s Law held true until the past couple years as the amount of power these chips need to compute becomes unsustainable and their computing power starts to level off. So, software researchers and hardware researchers have been thinking of new ways of increasing computing power that is more energy efficient. As someone who lives to see a good connection, I was thrilled to come across an opportunity for these two efforts to meet.

Deloitte’s Applied AI Leader, Melissa Smith, posted the below tweet that got me thinking about this.

When I was a kid, my mom would let me look at bacteria using the electron microscope in her laboratory. Shoutout to North Carolina A&T State University for investing in its laboratory capabilities. It was incredible to see extremely small organisms with such clarity. But, I could only observe these organisms in isolation. I couldn’t see how they interacted with organisms in the past, let alone predict how they would depending in changes in the environment. Things have changed over 20 years later. Electron microscopes allow researchers to examine nanoparticles with incredible accuracy.

There’s a whole field of science called quantum physics that describes the fundamental elements of the universe – photons, electrons, etc. The paper Melissa linked to is part of an effort to equip researchers with the tools to simulate and study the interaction of lots of particles and make predictions about phenomena like gravity.

The researchers figured out a way to use neural networks, basically algorithms designed to try and mimic how our brains identify patterns, to simulate the interaction of a bunch of particles, or quantum systems. The researchers did this because of the limits we are hitting in computing power.

Kunle Olukotun is a professor at Stanford who changed the game for computing in the 90s and early 00s. Back then, processing speeds were leveling off similar to what is happening today. He introduced the multi-core processor which kickstarted another wave of speed increases. Today, Kunle and his team at SambaNova Systems is building new software language and hardware flexible enough for artificial intelligence applications to run at scale. The talk below gives a nice overview of what the SambaNova team is building.

SambaNova hasn’t released its products yet, so for the time being the neural network solution the researchers came up with works. It will be really cool to see the impact a software and architecture able to handle quantum systems simulations has on their research. That convergence could be really powerful. I, for one, would love to see how much has changed from when I would ask my mom if I could look at something in the electron microscope.

No. 219: Podcast Interview – AI + Africa

Thanks to Kwabena Sarkodie for having me on his podcast, Insights from the Sahara, to discuss all things artificial intelligence and Africa.

No. 218: AWS AI Extraction | Social Welfare Programs and AI | Indian State Adoption of AI

AWS Announces General Availability of Amazon Textract (Amazon)

Amazon is making widely available a text and data extraction tool that is going to make it real easy to search all kinds of information. My whole time reading this release all I could think about was how hard it is to search your own posts on Twitter. There’s no excuses now, Jack Dorsey.

Conference on Social Protection by Artificial Intelligence: Decoding Human Rights in a Digital Age (Freedom to Tinker)

The incorporation of artificial intelligence in welfare programs comes with a range of risks. The last section of this piece is critical, taking a human centered design approach with a focus on those most at the mercy of artificial intelligence technology operating portions of welfare programs. That kind of approach would be helpful in avoiding unintended consequences over the course of developing AI tools for these populations.

Niti Aayog plans index to rank states on artificial intelligence adoption (Economic Times)

An index rating the readiness of states across India to adopt artificial intelligence technologies will be very interesting to read. Considering the U.S. has states still struggling with voting machine technology, this sort of index would be very eye-opening for policy makers in this country.