Kenya’s AI Ambitions: Will Premature Regs Clip Innovation’s Wings?

By Antony Ndolo, Kavengi Kitonga, Lynda Ouma and Paul Amayo

On June 18, 2024, Hon. Earnest Kagesi, chair of the Public Petitions Committee, met with members of the Robotics Society of Kenya to discuss the petition submitted to the Kenyan Parliament to establish the Kenya Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Society as a Bill. The petition seeks to create the Kenya Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Society to regulate, raise awareness, and build capacity in the field.

The Vision and the Challenge

While we share the vision of advancing the Robotics and AI sector in Kenya and agree on the need for responsible technology, the current bill and the proposed society are not suitable for achieving these goals. The timing, mandate, and support for the society are problematic.

One of the society’s main functions is to regulate the robotics and AI sector, assuming a robust industry already exists in Kenya. Although there is significant activity, including startup growth and infrastructural investments, Kenya ranks 101st in the Government AI Readiness Index 2023. This indicates that a robust AI industry does not yet exist. To foster growth, immediate action is needed to address challenges such as the lack of datasets, high compute costs, limited infrastructure, and low levels of local AI talent and governance. Establishing the society at this point is premature.

Overlapping Mandates

The proposed society’s mandate to regulate, create awareness, and build capacity overlaps with existing efforts. Numerous stakeholders, including ministries, private players, educational institutions, and NGOs, are already involved in these activities. Insisting on this duplicative mandate burdens taxpayers and creates unnecessary bureaucracy, revealing an impractical and egotistical pursuit.

The proposed society lacks majority support. The identity of the Robotics and AI society it claims to represent is unclear. The bill has faced significant opposition from practitioners since its inception. Continuing to impose this bill disregards the majority view and raises the question, “Whose interests does this bill serve?” Previous punitive versions of the bill have eroded goodwill, making future amendments unlikely to garner support.

Leveraging Existing Legislation

Leverage existing legislation and institutions to enforce guiding principles such as public good, data protection and privacy, human safety and security, accountability, diversity, inclusion, and responsible development. Embed these principles early in the data collection process using ethics boards across the country. This alignment ensures that projects adhere to the Data Protection Act No. 24 of 2019 and allows domain experts to flag issues at the conception stage. The recently operationalized Regulatory Sandbox Framework by the Communications Authority of Kenya can spur AI development by providing a controlled environment to test emerging ICT products and services.

Relying on existing consumer protection laws and institutions like the Consumer Protection Act of 2012, the Ministry of Information, Communications and The Digital Economy, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, and the Communications Authority of Kenya to address potential issues during deployment. Where current mechanisms are insufficient, amendments can be considered.

To conclude, a systematic and collaborative approach is essential to achieve the major goals outlined in the proposed framework of the Act. These include developing a national AI strategy, creating awareness of best practices in robotics and AI, fostering stakeholder collaboration, building capacity, and making infrastructural investments. Addressing current constraints such as data, computing resources, infrastructure, governance, and human capital will pave the way toward creating a formidable industry that merits regulation.

Antony Ndolo, Kavengi Kitonga, Lynda Ouma and Paul Amayo are researchers

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