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BusinessDay: South Africa lags several African countries on AI policy

None of the recommendations in a report on the fourth industrial revolution has been implemented by the government.

By Johan Steyn, 21 June 2022

In October 2020, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, the former communications & digital technologies minister gazetted the “Report of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)”. Setting out the government’s response and strategy to the new era of smart technologies, it emphasised that the priority is urgency and accountability.

The report says, “The 4IR is not in the future, it is the present. It is therefore imperative that the country reorganises itself to ensure citizens are positioned to benefit from the opportunities it presents. To achieve this, there must be clear accountability for implementing the recommendations within a time frame that can be monitored by all stakeholders in society.”

The recommendations were worthy of praise. It proposed investment in people “to leapfrog our youth into productive work and reskill current workers for job retention”. SA was to establish an artificial intelligence (AI) institute for training “to be delivered across various sections of society, as well as ensuring positive social impact”.

Another recommendation was to develop a platform to help revive the country’s manufacturing sector “supported by a state-led research initiative focused on advanced manufacturing and new materials”.

And last, the commission advised that efficient e-government services be built on “reliable, accurate, standardised, integrated and easily accessible citizen data ... across sectors such as health, transport and justice”.

The report was released with much fanfare in the media 20 months ago. I am reminded of a favourite series on Netflix that was decommissioned before the story ended. The writers built a narrative that was not supposed to finish at the end of the first season, and viewers were left with the almighty question, “What now?”

It saddens me that despite the admirable work delivered by the authors of the 4IR report the premier season ended with an unsatisfactory lack of imagination. The producers and writers cannot blame the competing genres of national unrest, unemployment, corruption at an unimaginable scale and a global pandemic.

The simple truth is that nothing has happened. None of the lofty 4IR recommendations has been implemented with “urgency and accountability.” It remains a beautifully drafted script for an amazing movie stashed away in a drawer.

Oxford Insights’ 2021 AI Readiness index ranks 160 nations based on how prepared their governments are to use AI in public services. Nearly 40% of the index’s countries have either published or are drafting national AI strategies.

On Sub-Saharan Africa, the report says that the main priority is “narrowing the skills gap that exists ... without those with the skills to implement it, a national AI strategy is impotent”. Mauritius has developed an official national AI strategy. Kenya and Ethiopia have each developed an AI task force. In SA, we are struggling to keep the lights on.

In his state of the nation address on February 7 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa said, “Unless we adapt, unless we understand the nature of the profound change that is reshaping our world, and unless we readily embrace the opportunities it presents, the promise of our nation’s birth will forever remain unfulfilled.”

The government, business and society need to work together to ensure that we are not being left behind in the age of AI. The future of our children depends on it.


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