Ministers Trade Words Over Ownership Of AI Implementation Platform

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Pantami Tijani
Pantami Tijani

The proposed implementation strategy and platform to grow Artificial Intelligence (AI) has sparked a disagreement between the former Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami and his successor, Bosun Tijani.

At the end of a four-day National Artificial Intelligence Strategy (NAIS) workshop, Tijani emphasised that the event was not just a wake-up call but also a concerted effort to devise a strategy addressing the needs of Nigerian citizens and communities. He highlighted the growing global attention on AI and the increase in investments in technology within Nigeria. According to Tijani “Over 1 Petabyte of storage is already being allocated to AI projects in Nigeria by Galaxy Backbone Limited. The Pilot Compute Programme, which sees 21st Century Technologies investing over $2 million in graphics processing unit (GPU), will enable us to start building and narrating the story of why we need to invest in our computing power as a nation.”

To accelerate the adoption and implementation of AI, Tijani announced the relaunch of the National Centre for Artificial Intelligence & Robotics (NCAIR). He stated, “The relaunch of new and improved capacity at the National Centre for AI and Robotics (NCAIR) is to better fulfill its mandate.” He added that NCAIR is a special-purpose vehicle created to promote research and development in emerging technologies, focusing on AI, robotics, drones, the Internet of Things (IoT) and other cutting-edge technologies to transform Nigeria’s digital economy.

However, Pantami disagreed, tweeting that Tijani didn’t have to relaunch a project (NCAIR) that had already been initiated and properly launched by President Muhammadu Buhari. Pantami pointed out that the NCAIR had been built and commissioned in November 2020, almost four years ago, claiming it was the first of its kind in Africa and had been very effective, training thousands of Nigerians. “Legacy is achieved, not claimed,” Pantami asserted.

In response, Tijani emphasised that the relaunch has multiple deliverables, including the AI Collective, a community of practice aimed at accelerating the nation’s prosperity through an inclusive AI ecosystem. He explained, “The Collective will harness the power of AI to drive economic prosperity, accelerate innovation and social development and position Nigeria as a leading force in AI for good globally.” He further stressed the need for appropriate policies to govern the deployment and use of AI at both federal and subnational levels. “We need to build platforms that can aid and support those who want to innovate so that they can thrive,” Tijani added.

The NAIS Workshop brought together over 120 AI researchers, practitioners, technology companies, civil societies and other groups from across the world to co-create a comprehensive national AI strategy. The outcomes include a draft national AI strategy document outlining the strategic imperatives, policies, investments, implementation roadmap, governance structures, and necessary steps to catalyse Nigeria into an AI-driven economy.

The quarrel between both officials raises questions. If one claims to have launched it and the other relaunches it, are they not both working towards the same goal for Nigeria? It seems one is driven by an “ownership mentality” and the other by “self-centeredness,” both of which are common issues in Nigeria. This self-serving attitude detracts from the goal of serving humanity.

At the original launch of NCAIR on November 13, 2020, Pantami stated, “NCAIR will serve as a leading hub of innovation, research and development, knowledge transfer, and training in the areas of AI, robotics, and other emerging technologies.” He added that the adoption of regulatory sandbox frameworks for testing technology in a controlled environment would enable the center to accelerate progress in the development of Nigeria’s digital economy.

Pantami also claimed that the centre was fully equipped with a digital innovation lab, serving as a one-stop shop for digital innovation support, a makerspace and fabrication lab (Fab Lab) infrastructure to support innovation-driven enterprises (IDEs), printed circuit board facilities, 3D Printers, coworking space for startups and training facilities. “Artificial Intelligence is the refinery of the digital economy while robotics is very useful in supporting companies in carrying out their repetitive tasks,” he explained.

Pantami emphasised that AI and robotics are two critical emerging technologies that will shape the future. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution, fueled by Big Data, propelled by robust computing capacity, advanced software, and Artificial Intelligence, is ushering new ways of living, well-being, learning, travelling and working,” he said.

The relaunch of NCAIR is expected to support the Nigerian Multilingual Large Language Model, which aims to build the most robust Nigerian large language model. The project will leverage the support of the Three Million Technical Talent (3MTT) programme fellows to collate high-quality Nigerian language data and fuel the development of sophisticated AI models.

Additionally, NCAIR will support Nigeria’s computing infrastructure pilot to accelerate the development of AI projects of national interest. For this purpose, Galaxy Backbone Limited will partner with 21st Century Technologies to develop Nigeria’s national computing project which will be available to local researchers, startups, and government entities working on critical AI projects. This infrastructure will reside at the Galaxy Backbone Data Centre and be accessible through NCAIR.

The disagreement between Pantami and Tijani underscores the challenges of continuity and collaboration in government projects. Despite the contention, both ministers have contributed to advancing Nigeria’s AI landscape and their efforts should ideally complement each other to achieve the nation’s digital and technological goals.

However, the recent events highlight the broader issues within the Nigerian political and technological landscape. The focus on individual achievements rather than collective progress can hinder the nation’s advancement. Pantami’s initiative laid the groundwork, and Tijani’s efforts to expand and improve upon it should be seen as a continuation rather than a competition.

The importance of AI in modern economies cannot be overstated. AI has the potential to revolutionise various sectors, including agriculture, public health, and education, by increasing productivity and efficiency. For Nigeria, a country striving to diversify its economy, the effective implementation of AI could be transformative. The technology can help address longstanding challenges and foster innovation, driving the country towards a more prosperous future.

Both ministers have a vision for AI in Nigeria, and their combined efforts could propel the country into a leading position in the global AI landscape. The relaunch of NCAIR, with its enhanced capacity and broader scope, aims to build on the foundation laid by Pantami. By focusing on creating an inclusive AI ecosystem, the initiative seeks to ensure that the benefits of AI are widely distributed and accessible to all Nigerians.

The role of government in facilitating technological advancement is crucial. Policies that encourage investment in AI and support innovation are necessary for sustained growth. The NAIS Workshop’s outcomes, including the draft national AI strategy, provide a roadmap for the future. These strategic imperatives and policies must be implemented effectively to achieve the desired results.

The success of AI implementation in Nigeria depends on collaboration, not competition. The contributions of both Pantami and Tijani should be acknowledged and appreciated. By working together, leveraging each other’s strengths and focusing on the common goal of national development, Nigeria can harness the full potential of AI to drive economic prosperity and social progress.

This collaboration should extend beyond government officials to include researchers, practitioners, technology companies, civil society organisations and the broader community. Building a robust AI ecosystem requires collective effort and a shared vision. The AI Collective and other initiatives launched during the relaunch of NCAIR are steps in the right direction.

In summary, while the disagreement between Pantami and Tijani may seem like a setback, it also presents an opportunity for reflection and realignment of priorities. The focus should be on the bigger picture—using AI to improve the lives of Nigerians and position the country as a leader in the global digital economy. With the right policies, investments and collaborative efforts, Nigeria can achieve its AI aspirations and create a brighter future for its citizens.

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