James Manyika: Mbare boy scales high to rule Google

James Manyika: Mbare boy scales high to rule Google

ZIMBABWEANS are well-known for their resilience and undying desire to overcome obstacles in their way.

Tech guru, Dr James Manyika, the senior vice president of research, technology and society at Google, might be soaring high in the United States at the moment, but he had humble beginnings with the highlight being primary education at Chitsere in Mbare, Harare from 1971 to 1977.

Mbare was the first township established in the capital in 1907, and back then, it was called Harare but often spelt Harari to match the pronunciation of most English speakers.

Dr Manyika, who has researched extensively on Artificial Intelligence (AI), was born in August 1965 in Zimbabwe.

After Chitsere he attended Prince Edward School for his secondary education and then enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe where he received a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree in 1989.

In an interview on the sidelines of the UNECA conference in Victoria Falls, Dr Manyika said after completing his undergraduate degree at UZ, he proceeded to the University of Oxford in England for his Masters and PhD.

“I did my primary education in Mbare at Chitsere and high school at Prince Edward School. I was a PE boy,” he said.

Dr Manyika then worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an independent agency of the United States and later McKinsey & Company, an American multinational strategy and management consulting firm.

“Even as I was at McKinsey, I continued to do AI research and later on, I became a Google research fellow.

“I actually had the opportunity to join Google in 2001 but I didn’t join at the time but they kept asking, when are you going to join,” said Dr Manyika. Asked jokingly if he came into contact with former Deputy Prime Minister, Professor Arthur Mutambara, during his time at McKinsey & Company, Dr Manyika said: “I know Arthur, he was two years behind me at UZ and when I went to Oxford, he also came two years later.

“So, I knew Arthur when he was at Oxford and when he came to McKinsey. I was only there for only a year then I left.”

Dr Manyika was back in his motherland last week for the 56th session of Mbare boy scaffolds high to lead Google the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development that ran from February 28 to March 5 in the resort city of Victoria Falls.

The conference was officially opened by President Mnangagwa on Monday. While in Victoria Falls, Dr Manyika delivered the keynote address during the 2024 Adebayo Adedeji Memorial lecture that ran under the theme: “Financing the transition to inclusive green economies in Africa: Imperatives, opportunities and policy options.”

As debate on AI continues amid fear of job losses and excitement over potential reduced work load, Dr Manyika said there was nothing to be scared of.

Asked if the huge advances in technology, particularly AI, is going to wipe out jobs as is widely feared, he said: “I don’t think that’s quite right in the following sense, that all the research we have done, I have done, generally says the same thing although people have different estimates.

“The three things it generally says are yes, there are probably some occupations that will decline because in those occupations, tasks involved will be easy to be done with AI.

“But there is going to be some jobs gained that will come from new jobs that didn’t exist before, demand for things that didn’t exist.”

Dr Manyika said a good example of the benefits of technology is that back in 1995, “there was no job called web designer, because the internet wasn’t quite there yet”.

“Today, if you look at any job classification, there is no job called prompt engineer. But we know people are becoming prompt engineers.”

He said there will also be “jobs changed”, which come when the existing job starts to use technology “assistively”.

“So this idea of jobs lost, yes, jobs gained yes and jobs changed yes. This is a phenomenon we are going to see.

“It’s going to be important to encourage companies to use these technologies assistively, instead of trying to replace workers,” Dr Manyika said.

During a side event on AI during the conference, some panelists said AI was going to take a long time to become established in some African countries due to challenges with infrastructure.

It was agreed that some of the key AI infrastructure would be data centres and electricity, but there were concerns that power cuts, especially with erratic rains this season across the SADC region, power supply could be reduced, affecting rollout and use of AI.

Dr Manyika said AI foundations are the core elements any company, organisation, country or region needs to have.

“They include enough computer, data and data centres to power best-in-class AI models, access to models, and model development by many more players, including in Africa, and AI expertise to drive innovation.

“Enabling infrastructure includes ubiquitous and affordable connectivity, digital infrastructure, and electricity. Here we are seeing encouraging progress, including Econet Group’s 100 000 km of fibre optics and Google’s Equiano sub-sea cable, which will help lower internet prices and increase speed, but more is needed,” he said.

However, Dr Manyika bemoaned low broadband access in Africa, which he said is 34 percent, compared to the global average of 66 percent.

In terms of skills and talent pipelines, he said, these start with education and training to equip students with the right technical knowledge, all the way to skilling programmes that support people already in the workforce.

“When it comes to innovation, demand for African developers is already at an all-time high, driven by startup growth and rapid digitisation by local businesses. The assistive use of AI can further expand the pool of African developers. Africa has a unique opportunity to tap and enable its rich demographic pipeline of young talent on the continent, and in the diaspora too,” Dr Manyika said.

Asked what he can do to help his countrymen, Dr Manyika said he was already providing scholarships and fellowships to Zimbabweans.

“There are things that I am doing; I have helped set up scholarships and fellowships for Zimbabweans students,” he said, adding that there was a need “to encourage each other to promote Zimbabwe”.-Herald

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