Innovation always does at least one thing. It polarises the pessimists and the optimists. Every time a meaningful invention emerges — from the typewriter to the tablet computer — a familiar dance ensues. Sceptics decry the technology as a portent of Armageddon and believers hail a new dawn.
I’ll confess, on most days I fall into the latter camp. New technologies bring out the unbridled bull in me.
It’s healthy to see possibility, but there’s a caveat — a reason not simply to be swept away. Behind every piece of new technology is a guiding hand, and it’s not always equitable, inclusive or beneficent.
We must recognise that a design for healthy advancement is the fulcrum that justifies optimism. And so it should be when we consider technology that will reshape our world and change our lives.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the most significant example — and challenge. Is South Africa prepared for the warp-speed innovation to come? Will AI dominate us or will we figure out ways to harness its proliferation?
Perhaps our broader experience can help. As a nation, we’ve overcome great difficulties. We believe things can be better. There’ve been key times when we’ve forged solutions for our collective benefit.
Blind optimism is rarely an option. Its risk was underscored, for me, by three recent events.
- US Senator Richard Blumenthal, at a Senate hearing in May on AI, opened with a deepfake audio recording of himself. The likeness to his tone, timbre, cadence and content was uncanny. In his words, “No one, in fact, could tell it was a clone. What if the recording had been used to fake an endorsement of Ukraine surrendering or of Russian President Vladimir Putin?”
- The lawsuit filed on 16 August against YouTube and Reddit alleging the companies, via the content they platformed, contributed to the radicalisation of a shooter who killed 10 people.
- California regulators voting on 10 August to let robotaxi companies operate driverless services in San Francisco without restriction. Courtesy of GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo, San Francisco residents will have 24/7 access to driverless taxis. The waitlist is in the tens of thousands.
All three of these events raise questions and concerns around (1) the scope for bad actors to propagate misinformation at scale; (2) digital connectivity making the world a smaller place for good and also for bad; and (3) the impact on labour markets.
These are not trivial matters. If AI innovation is left to run its course unbridled, we could see dark and unintended consequences that distort how we relate to one another, enrich those with no good intentions, and embolden the kind of politics that is built on fear and uncertainty.
What is the answer?
South Africa needs less drama, not more. It needs a stronger economy, not weaker.
What is the answer, then? Is it a moratorium on AI development, as has been touted by the open letter written a few months ago by Elon Musk et al? There is too much commercially at stake for this ever to have amounted to more than a blip in our collective memories.
The answer has to be, as with many of our contemporary conundrums, a social compact between government, private enterprise and an engaged civil society. The White House took the initiative and penned a “Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights”. Issues of human fallback, algorithmic discrimination and privacy form cornerstones of this document. A mighty good start.
In the Global South, we cannot be oblivious to the seismic shifts in our ways of being. The upside is too great, as is the downside. We need our own roadmaps. We need one in South Africa.
While a US version of managing this innovation contemplates exclusion based on race and gender and algorithmic opacity as a source of harm, a South African version ought to go further, and centre economic inclusion at its heart. Our enormous challenge is to create a healthy and sustainable economy.
Digital connectivity, access, training and skills for an AI labour force should receive primacy in the debate. We must engineer an environment that gives our people the chance to win, not to lose.
Wouldn’t we serve our country well by enhancing, for starters, our education and healthcare? Bill Gates has posited how he sees AI narrowing inequities in both these areas. It’s a compelling vision.
In our state education, we’re painfully aware of schools’ child-to-teacher ratios. We also understand that we spend more than 6% of our GDP on education, versus a global average of 4% (according to World Bank data). This vexing matter might be eased by, for example, AI tutors, with their infinite compassion, patience, helpfulness and knowledge. Imagine customised tutoring for every child who needed it…
This is the power of AI deployed at scale, thoughtfully and for good.
Our country created a national Constitution that is world-leading. We can think expansively and originally. There is a genuine space for us to take up thought leadership in penning the tramlines that promote a just and inclusive digital transition. Let the ideas and proposals flow.
Innovation waits for no bystanders. The time to apply our minds, for the good of our country, is now. DM