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South Africa’s new National Artificial Intelligence Institute can help transform our economy

South Africa’s new National Artificial Intelligence Institute can help transform our economy
The authors argue that artificial intelligence is the bedrock of the 4IR, underpinning the growing connections in cyber, physical and biological systems. (Photo: iStock)

The new institute will include projects such as AI for the mining industry, the construction of a large government data cloud, AI for motor industry infrastructure enhancements, modernising public services, digital farming and AI-enhanced food production.

In his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, the founder of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab provides an insightful perspective on the 4IR when he writes: “Technology is not an exogenous force over which we have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between ‘accept and live with it’ and ‘reject and live without it’. Instead, take dramatic technological change as an invitation to reflect about who we are and how we see the world. The more we think about how to harness the technology revolution, the more we will examine ourselves and the underlying social models that these technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution in a manner that improves the state of the world.”

With the establishment of the Presidential Commission on the 4IR (PC4IR) in 2019, South Africa acknowledged the all-encompassing significance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and its disruptive effect on technology, industry and society at large.

Through the PC4IR, South Africa was signalling its intention to harness and leverage the power of 4IR to benefit its economy and people. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that 4IR is expected to create up to $3.7-trillion in value by 2025. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic plunged the world into the 4IR, revealing the uneven levels of 4IR readiness between and within countries. There was great foresight in the 2019 establishment of the PC4IR.

By 2020, the PC4IR published a comprehensive strategy comprising several recommendations to assist the government in taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the digital industrial revolution. At the heart of these recommendations was the establishment of a national artificial intelligence (AI) institute.

The other recommendations were: investing in human capital; creating a platform for advanced manufacturing; securing and availing data to enable innovation; incentivising 4IR industries and platforms; building 4IR infrastructure; reviewing and amending legislation; and establishing a 4IR strategy implementation coordination council.

Based on the development of technology that performs tasks usually requiring human intelligence, AI is the bedrock of the 4IR, underpinning the growing connections in cyber, physical and biological systems.

Research, development and implementation capabilities in Al are critical to South Africa’s national 4IR strategy and must be embedded within the state. The recommendation to establish the institute was focused on creating a common base to apply AI to various industries to spur industrial and research development.

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On 30 November 2022, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) established the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa as an innovation engine for public and private sectors in line with the PC4IR.

The partnership is a natural fit since the DCDT has embarked on various 4IR initiatives in its recent history. Similarly, UJ and TUT, with a joint student body of more than 100,000, have emerged as leaders in the 4IR space in South Africa and the African continent. The collective impact of these universities in this space reaches far beyond South Africa’s borders to Africa and elsewhere in the world.

This institute will focus on research and development, as well as implementation capabilities in AI. In this way, the institute will help enhance investment in human capital and in the applications that improve collaboration between humans and machines.

When mandating this work, the DCDT was instructive that the institute must develop solutions to South African and African challenges. In this regard and as the first product from the AI institute, South African science-teaching schools with no laboratories will benefit from using virtual labs for science experiments. The AI institute is ultimately expected to be responsible for the country’s AI capacities and applications across sectors.

The institute will also deal with arising legal and ethical issues. This is important. Failure to reflect on and provide possible solutions to legal and ethical questions will render the advances in AI capacities and applications meaningless and futile.

The legal and ethical questions surrounding autonomous vehicles are a case in point. From a legal point of view, there are questions about assigning blame for such vehicles’ actions, especially if they harm human beings and/or destroy property. Answers to these questions will have far-reaching consequences for, among others, the automotive industry, the insurance companies and the Road Accident Fund.

Regarding ethics, questions such as choices to be made by self-driving vehicles require careful thought and consideration. For example, should the self-driving vehicle spare the lives of several persons at the expense of one person (i.e. the so-called trolley problem) or sacrifice an older person’s life to save that of a young person?

These issues do not have straightforward answers. That said, they need to be carefully and scientifically thought through to support the development, review and amendment of legislation as envisaged by the PC4IR. The AI Institute is well-placed to fulfil this important role.

Ultimately, the objective is to enable the expansion of AI expertise across the African continent by learning from both the local population and international expertise. As our institutions collectively declared at the launch, “it presents South Africa with the opportunity to reskill the labour force for a digital future, whereby working collaboratively with machines will be the norm.”

Underground mining truck at the South Deep Gold Mine on October 12, 2022 in Westonaria, South Africa. South Deep Gold Mine is a world-class bulk mechanised mining operation located in the Witwatersrand Basin and it is the second-biggest gold mine in the world. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Daily Maverick/Felix Dlangamandla)

As announced at the launch, various catalytic projects will be housed at the two institutions — TUT and UJ. These, among others, will include projects such as AI for the mining industry, the construction of a large government data cloud, AI for motor industry infrastructure enhancements, modernising public services, digital farming and AI-enhanced food production. The two institutions already have considerable capabilities in these broad areas and more.

The opportunities this institute presents for our institutions, government and beyond are vast. The emphasis will be on empowering the youth and ensuring that they are armed with the training, skills and formal education to assist the country to succeed in the 4IR. DM

Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi is the incoming Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Tshwane University of Technology.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the incoming United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General and a Rector of the UN University.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni is Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies.


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