No. 200: Ozwald Boateng x Harlem

Ozwald Boateng put on an incredible fashion show today at the Apollo Theatre. I loved that he called the show AI for artistic intelligence. Africa flows through his designs and the combination with the title struck me as a strong statement of the confidence with which black folks must carve out our role in shaping the future.

Boateng’s designs were full of complex simplicity and boldness – two characteristics that I believe are core to black design – chicken and waffles, kente cloth, and hip hop sampling are just a few examples. We can bring the same design ethos to the shaping of artificial intelligence. I’m sure in a lot of ways we already are.

Kunle Olukotun through his development of Afara Websystems, changed the game for server rooms back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, increasing their ability to avoid power outages. Over the past couple years, he has been building a new company developing a platform on which artificial intelligence applications can run.

The thing that bothers me about this example is that the intellectual property Olukotun and his team is developing is in the U.S. The use of mobile phones across Africa is still pointed to as the primary example of leapfrogging. I think the next wave of leapfrogging has to take place at a foundational level – African countries figuring out how to remix how commercialization of advanced research takes place.

In order to accomplish this, what education looks like across Africa needs to be a primary focus. How do we make sure students are getting all the exposure and resources they need to maximize their curiosity from elementary school through college and that there are resources that can support them even if they do decide to study at a Stanford, CalTech or Harvard. How do we create an environment where an incredible researcher like Olukotun feels like he could be really productive in Nigeria. Even if it doesn’t make sense to conduct research on the continent, researchers should be confident they can look to countries across Africa for support.

My thinking here is still pretty rough and I’m writing this with very sleepy eyes. I’d love to engage with folks who have a point of view on this.

What do you think is key to Africa participating in the development of artificial intelligence?