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BusinessDay: SA’s AI plan presents both opportunities and hurdles

Concerns about draft national artificial intelligence plan’s vagueness and lack of detail.

By Johan Steyn, 2 May 2024

SA’s recent rollout of its draft national artificial intelligence (AI) plan at the National AI Government Summit is an important step towards leveraging AI to propel national advancement.

Though the plan is ambitious in scope, covering an array of applications including political, economic and military aspects, its reception has been mixed. Industry experts have raised concerns about the plan’s vagueness and lack of detailed practical applications, which could impede its effectiveness. 

The draft plan aims to set a comprehensive strategy for integrating AI technologies into SA’s fabric, though critics have noted its failure to provide clear connections with existing policies, such as the draft national data and cloud policy. This lack of integration could potentially stifle the plan’s implementation because coherent policy alignment is essential for effective execution.

 SA business leaders are well positioned to influence the development of this AI strategy. Their expertise is critical in transforming this initial draft into a robust framework that not only drives technological innovation but also addresses the socioeconomic impacts of AI. By working closely with policymakers, they can advocate for a plan that adheres to international standards while also being tailored to meet the country’s specific challenges and opportunities.

One of the pivotal advancements needed in the draft AI plan is the alignment of the technology’s potential with the practical needs of the SA economy. Industries such as agriculture, healthcare, and finance in particular are poised for transformation through AI-driven innovations that could enhance productivity, improve service delivery, and create new market opportunities. Focusing on AI applications that address real problems will not only give SA a competitive edge but also promote sustainable economic growth.

The plan’s approach to governance and regulatory frameworks requires much enhancement to align with global benchmarks, such as those set by the EU AI Act. SA’s governance of AI must ensure the ethical development and deployment of the technology. Also, it is essential to establish clear guidelines for data privacy and security. Here again, input from the business community is indispensable.

Investing in AI literacy and skills development is another crucial area for effective leadership by the business community. The future workforce needs to be equipped with the necessary skills, which requires  collaboration between businesses and educational institutions to develop curricula that reflect the demands of a modern AI workforce, ensuring South Africans are well prepared for the impending technological shifts.

Public engagement and transparency in the AI policymaking process are also vital. By involving a spectrum of stakeholders, including tech experts, civil society and the public, SA can foster a more inclusive and informed AI strategy. Such an approach will not only improve the quality and acceptability of the AI plan but also help in identifying and addressing potential social impacts more effectively.

While the draft plan sets a framework for SA’s approach to AI, its success will rely heavily on a unified effort from all sectors. The plan needs to be pragmatic, globally aligned, and responsive to local contexts to fully harness AI’s potential for national development. Only by making the strategy practical and inclusive can SA secure its place on the global AI stage.


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