When he was a teenager, he loved video games. He is now using AI to try to end malaria. | ET REALITY

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As a teenager, Rokhaya Diagne would retreat to her brother’s room, where she would play online computer games for hours, day after day, until her mother finally got tired.

“My mom said, ‘This is an addiction,’” Ms. Diagne said. “She said that if she didn’t stop, she would send me to the hospital to see a psychiatrist.”

His mother’s interventions worked. While Ms. Diagne’s passion for computers has intensified, if anything, she has redirected her energies to loftier goals than leveling up in Call of Duty.

Now, his goals include using artificial intelligence to help the world eradicate malaria by 2030, a project he is focusing on at his health startup.

Video games “taught me a lot of things,” said Diagne, 25, a Senegalese computer science student who lives in Dakar, the capital. “They gave me problem-solving skills.”

“I don’t regret having played those things,” he added.

Ms. Diagne, who speaks fast and wears jeans and hijab, is part of a subset of Africa’s huge youth population whose lives have been shaped by screens and the Internet, and who are connected to the world to a degree that no generation before them could have imagined. .

For young Africans interested in technology-related careers, the Internet has offered a powerful addition to an education system that some experts fear is hampering Africa’s ability to harness its young people. While more students are graduating than ever, schools still rely heavily on standing and delivered lectures.

The wealth of free online coding bootcamps, robotics lessons and conferences from companies like Stanford, Oxford and MIT are having a huge impact across Africa, inspiring careers in engineering and generating ideas for startups.

While some of her peers are most passionate about sensor fusion or robotics, Diagne enjoys artificial intelligence and deep machine learning. She helped create an award-winning networking app for meeting others with similar interests, like Tinder but for tech nerds. And he founded a startup called Afyasense (he borrowed “afya,” or health, from Swahili, an East African language) for its disease detection projects using AI.

“He is someone who is a pleasure to talk to because of the quality of the questions he asks and also the answers he gives,” said Ismaïla Seck, leader of the Senegalese party. growing AI community.

Like many other young people in Africa’s tech boom, Diagne is at the center of overlapping phenomena on the continent: a growing educated middle class raising even more educated children who, with every tap on a keyboard, have adopted the sense that the The continent’s biggest problems can be solved.

Ms Diagne wants to use AI to improve health outcomes in the region, a decision she made after a series of childhood illnesses landed her in Dakar’s hospitals, which were struggling to provide consistent, quality care.

“I know the mistakes that are unfortunately made,” he said.

Ms. Diagne’s drive has earned her recognition. Her project on malaria recently won an award at an AI conference in Ghana and a National award in Senegal for social entrepreneurship, as well as $8,000 in financing.

As a child, she said she was reserved, but always had a great appetite for research, fueled by her father, a literature professor and retired writer. When she was faced with questions from her daughter about how the world worked or about her Muslim faith, she would make her try to find the answer herself. He rewarded her with apples, which is still her favorite fruit.

He enrolled at the École Supérieure Polytechnique de Dakar to study biology and obtained an internship at the Dakar Main Hospital. But days of reviewing her lab samples helped her realize that kind of work wasn’t for her.

“I wanted a lot more challenges than fearing the bacteria in my body,” he said. “What I wanted was innovation and to be able to create and use my brain for something instead of predictive results that I just followed.”

Dejected at having made the wrong decision, Ms. Diagne dropped out of school and spent a year planning her next steps.

He remembered something his brother used to tell him: Do things that are more difficult because there is less competition. He chose bioinformatics, the science that deals with both the storage of complex biological data and its analysis to find new insights. The options to study it in Senegal were extremely limited.

But the American University of Science and Technology in Dakar had opened and offered a major in computer science, a field that he decided would offer a solid foundation for future studies in bioinformatics.

The university’s approach emphasizes applied learning, meaning instructors assign students projects and expect them to largely complete them on their own. And the assignments always aim to solve a local problem.

One project tasked students with building a drone capable of transporting a 100-kilogram payload over a distance of 10 kilometers, an act that could help alleviate polluting truck congestion outside the port of Dakar. Some of the university’s joint projects have already given rise to promising startups, such as solar boxwhich began as a commission to build an electric motorcycle powered by solar energy.

Ms. Diagne, now a senior, was assigned to send an underwater drone to collect information on fish and seagrasses, plants that absorb carbon.

“When I started, I didn’t even know what seagrasses were,” he said. “I had only seen an underwater drone in the movies. “I didn’t even know the difference between types of fish.”

He threw himself into the project and even hired a fisherman he saw on the beach to teach him how to fish so he could learn more about various species from someone he knew firsthand. His team is moving on to the next phase: building their own underwater drone.

While looking for another project, he learned that global health officials were working to eradicate malaria before the end of the decade. One of Senegal’s biggest health problems is the lack of rapid and reliable malaria testing in rural areas. He then set out to design a better system to identify positive cases.

Ms. Diagne recalled her boredom in the hospital laboratory, examining biological sample after sample. That act of memory seemed tailor-made for AI to address.

First, he needed to find a lab that would provide him with a large set of malaria-infected cells so he could train the AI ​​to read them. But some laboratories in Senegal are accustomed to sharing data only with foreign researchers.

“They will give information openly to those people, but when it comes to little Africans like me who are still learning, they don’t want to help us,” Ms. Diagne said.

Her school helped her find a lab operator who provided her with a set of cellular data that she fed into a deep learning tool and trained it to detect positive cases. Users will connect microscopes to a laptop loaded with their AI program, including 3D-printed microscopes that are inexpensive and small enough to deploy in rural areas.

As his anti-malaria project nears market launch, Diagne already knows what he wants to pursue next: using AI to detect cancer cells.

Ms. Diagne has relied on leaders at her university and West Africa’s growing tech community, who have been eager to offer advice as her projects gain recognition.

“They’ve been putting pressure on me so I can go out and show the world what I do,” he said. “Well, they haven’t succeeded on that part yet.”

But she is moving in that direction. The Ghana AI conference was her first trip abroad, and later this month she will travel to Switzerland to an innovator training program for more help launching your malaria project.

And she is willing to lend a hand to those who come after her.

“A lot of people come up to me and ask, ‘How did you do this, how did you do that?’” he said. “I can guide you and show you the way.”

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