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Dear Mr President, here’s why Uganda should accelerate technology growth

Dear President Museveni,

I write to you with a grave sense of immediacy and optimism about the destiny of our great nation as Vice Chancellor of Victoria University and a passionate advocate for her progress.

My name is Professor Lawrence Muganga, and I have dedicated my career to instilling knowledge and fostering creativity in Uganda. We are at a critical point in our history where what we decide now will impact generations of Ugandans.

This open letter, Your Excellency, implores you to emphasize emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Immersive Technology, Blockchain, Quantum Computing, and machine learning on our national agenda. These state-of-the-art disciplines hold enormous possibilities for driving transformative changes, redefining industries, and uplifting all Ugandans.

We live in an era that witnesses unprecedented technological change, with innovation accelerating at an amazing velocity. Countries that tap into these emerging technologies will not only survive but excel in the future global economy. For Uganda, this moment represents a turning point when we, as a nation, can harness this wave of technology as a springboard for growth and development, underscoring our role and responsibility in this technological era.

Throughout human history, technology has advanced at an ever-accelerating pace. Over 3 million years ago, the first rudimentary stone tools evolved into mind-boggling inventions that reshaped our lives faster than ever before.

The rate of this change can perhaps be best understood by examining the diminishing intervals between major technological revolutions. The Agricultural Revolution, which saw farming take root and societies settle, began around 10,000 BCE after millions of years of minor incremental advances. On the other hand, the Industrial Revolution, characterized by the invention of the steam engine and factory system, happened within a few centuries between the 1700s and 1800s.

More astounding is how many rapid breakthroughs occurred during the 20th century alone! Man’s first powered flight was only 66 years away from the moon landing in 1969. 1974, PCs were already available in the market, and by 1989, the Internet was launched. We have moved from horse-drawn carriages to autonomous electric vehicles even within the span of a single human life or from wired telegrams to phones with touch-screen communication.

However, experts claim that technology’s rapid pace of change is inevitable. Each new invention builds upon previous ones, making it easier for future innovations to be created. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil, “Technological change is exponential… There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.”

THE POTENTIAL OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), commonly known as machine learning, is a rapidly evolving discipline that enables computers and machines to perform tasks typically requiring human-like intelligence, including visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and language translation.

A.I. systems can learn from data, identify patterns, and minimize human involvement in decision-making processes. This disruptive technology is already transforming various sectors globally and has great potential for changing lives in Uganda.

In Uganda, where over 70% of the population is employed in agriculture, A.I. could increase productivity, lower costs, and make farming more sustainable. A.I. optimizes yields, reduces waste, and makes farming more efficient. For instance, AI-operated systems can study weather patterns, soil conditions, and crop health to advise farmers on irrigation, fertilization, or pest control.

Blue River Technology (acquired by John Deere) developed an AI-powered robot called “See & Spray” that uses computer vision to monitor and spray weeds on cotton plants precisely. By targeting only the weeds, the robot reduces herbicide usage by up to 90% compared to traditional broadcast spraying.

Imagine if Ugandan cotton farmers could access this technology - it would dramatically cut their herbicide costs, reduce environmental damage, and help manage the growing problem of herbicide-resistant weeds. Over 250 weed species have developed herbicide resistance, causing billions in crop losses annually. AI-guided precision spraying could be a game-changer.

The startup FarmShots analyzes satellite and drone imagery with machine learning algorithms to monitor crop health and identify problems like pest infestations, nutrient deficiencies, or irrigation issues. Picture a Ugandan maize farmer receiving an alert on her phone that a portion of her field is showing signs of fall armyworm infestation, thanks to FarmShots’ A.I. analysis of a recent satellite image.

She can then take swift, targeted action to control the pest before it devastates her entire crop. Rather than losing up to half her yield, she safeguards her livelihood and helps ensure food security for her community.

For a country like Uganda, where agriculture is the backbone of the economy, we can accelerate agricultural transformation and build a more resilient, food-secure future by putting these cutting-edge capabilities in the hands of farmers.

Another area in which A.I. has significantly impacted is healthcare. Doctors’ diagnoses can be supported by artificial intelligence algorithms, with some being able to predict potential health risks while others suggest the most appropriate treatment plans.

In radiology, A.I. systems can rapidly read and interpret medical images such as X-rays and MRIs with high sensitivity for early diagnosis of cancers, among other anomalies. Consider a future where AI-facilitated clinics in remote Ugandan villages offer expert opinions or chatbots equipped with A.I. deliver personalized advice on health to people who cannot easily reach doctors.

Access to quality education is now a possibility with the current technology. A.I. can power humanoids or even digital teachers that can reach every part of the country, and students can now learn from almost the same experts.

A.I. has the potential to personalize learning and improve access to quality education. Intelligent tutoring systems can adapt to individual students’ paces and learning styles by offering targeted feedback and recommendations. Grading papers automatically is another utility of artificial intelligence besides automating administrative tasks, which allows teachers to concentrate on mentoring young scholars along the line of critical thought development.

In countries like Uganda, where educational resources are often scarce, A.I. might help address those gaps and provide world-class educational opportunities to every child.

THE POWER OF IMMERSIVE TECHNOLOGIES

Immersive technologies, such as virtual (V.R.) and augmented (A.R.), are changing how we experience and interact with the world. V.R. replaces a user’s surroundings with a digital environment using head-mounted displays, offering a totally immersive experience.

On the other hand, A.R. overlays virtual objects on real ones, blending the digital world with the physical one without any evidence of separation. These technologies go beyond gaming and entertainment, transforming industries from education to healthcare to tourism.

In education, immersive technology is responsible for fascinating and personalized learning experiences. For instance, V.R. can take students to historical sites, facilitate the performance of virtual science experiments, or even allow them to travel through space. Meanwhile, AR makes education more interactive by helping children see complex concepts by visualizing them and manipulating objects in computer graphics where possible.

Imagine classrooms in Uganda where students can virtually dissect frogs, visit ancient ruins, or collaborate on projects with peers worldwide without leaving their desks. The value of A.R. in education was expected to reach $5.3 billion by 2023, while V.R. in education was predicted to grow to $640 million. Studies show that hands-on practice, enhanced by V.R. and A.R., has a retention rate of 75% compared to 5% for traditional lectures.

Walmart has been using V.R. to train its employees to handle customers better, preparing them for the hectic Black Friday shopping experience. Such opportunities help enterprises equip employees to provide increased customer satisfaction. VR/AR learners have demonstrated a recall rate of 80% even after one year of training, compared to only 20% after one week with traditional learning methods.

The author is vice chancellor, Victoria University

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