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BusinessDay: Artificial intelligence has a place in the dusty streets of rural SA

By Johan Steyn, 9 June 2021

Numerous articles, opinion pieces and books are published daily about the future of work and the world the smart technology era is creating. Many of these are written by academics and clever people who work for large technology companies. As a technologist, I am always keen to read these pieces to stay current in my understanding of where technology is taking the human race.

On the one hand, I am filled with hope for humanity as technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) can usher in a new era of longevity, health, the creation of new jobs and social equality. But on the other hand, I am filled with horror considering the dark side of what this technology could bring to humanity. Think of the weaponisation of AI, deep fakes where your identity, image and voice is recreated for cynical purposes, and the theft and harmful use of your personal data (all already a reality).

A few months ago I was part of an event at Redhill School where teenage girls from the school were joined by girls from rural areas. The event was part of a global series called “Girls in AI” and the goal was to teach the pupils about AI and offer them the opportunity to create a conceptual mobile application. They were divided into groups and had to select one of the UN sustainable development goals as a project.

The keynote address was by Emily Mbele, a senior technology leader with Rand Merchant Bank. The pupils sat star-struck as they listened to Mbele tell of her journey from a poor rural background to one of the top posts at an investment bank. Next, we divided them into groups where we taught the girls about design thinking and the practical applications of AI.

I was the moderator of one of the groups with three girls from Redhill and three from a rural area at our table. Joining us was Farieda Mayet, who was formerly a divisional chief information officer with FNB. We were astounded by the intelligence and thinking of the girls. They developed the concept for a mobile application that can help teenage girls with sexual health, using machine learning and conversational AI.

During the course of the day, I had the chance to get to know the two girls who sat to my immediate right. They told me about their desire to study and to create a bright future for themselves and their families. They were well-read on new technology and displayed a superior understanding of the applications of technology. They spoke about the challenges of electricity supply and internet connectivity in their area. Most days there was no running water. Their smiles and the shine in their eyes humbled me into appreciating their enthusiasm for a better life despite the daily hardships they suffer.

That day was a wake-up call for me; a eureka moment as I considered the future of our beloved country. In the dusty streets of our country housing the very poor there are multitudes of children with not only have hopes and dreams, but with keen intelligence and a smart sense of the future. In their hearts and minds, they hold the solutions for problems we face now and certainly new problems we will face in the future.

The smart technology era is at our fingertips, for now. We have limited time as a society to steer this technology in a direction that will serve humanity. We can create new ways to educate our children, heal disease and empower the poor. All of us are responsible. It is not up to the large corporations or those in Silicon Valley. We have to work together and find ways to create a better world. AI and smart technology is a gift to humanity. May we not repeat the multitude of mistakes of the past and simply monetise or gain control with this tool. We need to democratise technology. We need to leave a gift to our children now and into the future.

• Johan Steyn is a smart automation and artificial intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is the chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the IITPSA (Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA). He writes in his personal capacity.


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