skip to content

Department of Computer Science and Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has cut short one researcher’s planned sabbatical year developing AI in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Professor Alan Blackwell has now returned to Cambridge where his colleagues across the Cambridge Global Challenges initiative are now helping to coordinate the University’s response to the pandemic in developing countries.

Alan is Professor of Interdisciplinary Design here at the Department of Computer Science and Technology. He is also Director of Research at Cambridge Global Challenges (CGC) – the University’s Strategic Research Initiative aiming to contribute to society through a particular focus on the poorest half of the world’s population.

CGC is now supporting researchers across the University who are responding to the coronavirus outbreak in developing countries, including projects such as ‘Supporting health officials to rapidly distinguish between potential cases of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases based on clinical and demographic data’ and ‘Translating World Health Organisation recommendations into African languages’.

Alan was due to be in Africa himself at this time. He had planned to spend the whole of this academic year (2019-20) on sabbatical, considering how Artificial intelligence research has become deep but narrow, and asking the question ‘What would AI look like if it was invented in Africa?’ 

He and a number of colleagues had planned to explore that question through working with computer scientists and educators in Ethiopia, Namibia, Uganda and elsewhere. He should currently be in Namibia, but the pandemic put paid to those plans.

"I am now back here," he says, "in relatively little danger, and hoping that this global crisis does not further threaten the vulnerable people who have been so generous in their willingness to work with us."

Alan completed a project in Ethiopia from October to December. It focused on two main themes – the potential for statistics curriculum and methods to be enhanced by more accessible probabilistic programming tools; and the need for natural language processing resources in the Amharic language to support an AI4D agenda in Ethiopia.

But along the way, he and his colleagues found themselves presented with opportunities to become involved in other issues, such as exploring how AI methods and applications could contribute to healthcare and improve maternal health and safety in childbirth in Ethiopia.

For the second project of his sabbatical year, from January to February, Alan took a side-trip to his home country of Aotearoa New Zealand, where he and colleagues explored interpretations of AI in Maori and Pasifika cultures and worked, among others, with "a wonderful mix of wise elders and dynamic young artists and thinkers from Tonga, Samoa, Aotearoa and other places.

"Such events," he says, "have greatly enriched the project of understanding AI from perspectives outside its primary lineage in European and North American technology and philosophy."

But just after that work finished, the COVID-19 outbreak intervened. It made it impossible to pursue the next planned project in Namibia, which included working with the International University of Management there to explore the teaching of probabilistic reasoning in Tsumkwe high school. 

Instead, Alan found himself unexpectedly returning home where he is reflecting on the impact of the virus on us all.

"This global pandemic, as with so many other economic and environmental crises, continues to affect the poor of the world far more seriously than it does the rich,” he says. "We wish good health for all our friends, family, and colleagues."

Published by Christine Georgiou on Tuesday 7th April 2020