Are we thinking about the digital future?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

If God wills, I shall be particpating in what I hope would be an exciting event on 31 January. Themed “Nigeria in the World, the World in Nigeria”, panelists at the “Nigeria Economic Outlook Conference 2018” (#NEOC18) would discuss what Nigeria’s place could be in a post-oil world. Tony Seba, a Stanford University scholar in entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy with an enviable record of correct predictions, posits crude oil demand would peak at about 100 million barrels per day (mbpd) by 2020, three years from now. A decade after, by 2030, he supposes it could be about 70 mbpd. That is not so bad, you probably reckoned just now. If his estimations are vindicated, the price for a barrel of crude oil would not be so tolerable at about $25 by 2021-22; that is about 4-5 years from now. Why would these happen? Mr Seba believes 95 percent of passenger miles would be self-driving, electric and on-demand by 2030. His analysis is not sentimental. It is economic. By his reckoning, it would be ten times less expensive to ride electric, autonomous and on-demand than owning a car. While the likelihood that these new transport technologies would make it to African countries within these timeframes is slim, the impact would almost certainly be immediately felt by oil-producing ones like Nigeria. So are we preparing for this future? Our education system remains an archaic rote-style nonsense. Our job market teaches little of tangible utility for a digital world. And our government wants to grow more yam tubers for export. If our country remains in its current ill-prepared state, this near digital future could be bleak for us indeed.

Action talk
Incidentally, the #NEOC18 is coming after the just concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The flurry of ideas was simply extraordinary. I followed the proceedings extensively from my very warm abode in Lagos – if you are left behind, there is nobody to blame but yourself. (See my Premium Times column for my observations: Artificial intelligence was on everyone’s lips. Its unimaginable possibilities, good and bad, have everyone’s antenna up. What really intrigues me is that these happenings are also discussed animatedly by the Nigerian intelligentsia. Unfortunately, these conversations are not translating into policy and action. We cannot continue like this. The Nigerian who designed the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, is back home. As far as I know, his mandate is to develop an auto industry in the country. I suspect his efforts are geared towards the futility of trying to build a fossil-fuel based car industry. If that is the case, I do not need to be a seer to know his years doing that are going to be wasted. Why not an electric car industry? He knows how to build one, doesn’t he? Someone might ask: where is the power? I would reply: why not a solar-powered one then? The sun is free, is it not? Besides, a solar-powered car is not just a concept: it has already been builit.

Step up
If we are serious as a country, we will put building a robust power and internet infrastructure at the top of our priorities. Off-grid power solutions are already taking off. And some well-meaning entrepreneurs have also been doing their bit in broadband access and developing coding capacity. MainOneand Andela are world-class Nigerian companies. They operate here and are run by Nigerians. They are evidence of our possibilities if and when we decide to put on our thinking caps. Nigeria needs more of them. The inequality of the future is not going to be so much between rich and poor as it would be between those acting on their knowledge for change and those who know but are doing nothing or are simply just ignorant. The knowledge gap would become contemporaneous with the wealth gap.

What else can we do? We could start acquiring the skills that allow us speak the “language of technology”, at least. You could also ask yourself how what you currently do for a living could change in the next decade or so because of technology; and what you are going to do about it. Digital banks would get better. Cars would become autonomous. Robots would be able to perform surgery. Manufacturing is going to become totally automated. Retail would become entirely online. In that event, what are you going to become, be able to do, and how are you going to earn a living? Of course, as these technologies evolve there is the sometimes mistaken assumption that human beings would be static and not similarly dynamic. Instead, it is more likely that as our current needs get cared for by machines, new ones would evolve precisely because of these disruptions. And it would likely be humans who are first able to handle or innovate to solve these new problems before machines are able to do them far better. So whether it is artifical intelligence, big data or something else currently just the pigment of the imagination of someone somewhere, no one can say for sure what the digital future would be like exactly. One thing is certain, though, unless poor economies step up their game, they would be left behind. Again.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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