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BusinesDay: Wanted - local experts to provide input for artificial intelligence institute

Collaboration is required to ensure that AI on the continent is under the control of Africans.

By Johan Steyn, 18 January 2023

Home to the world’s youngest population, with 70% of Sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30, our continent boasts a vast, diversified and fast-growing population. Technological innovation has the potential to considerably affect a large array of sectors and applications throughout Africa, including health care, agriculture, innovation, and economic growth.

Despite its promise, artificial intelligence (AI) is still in its infancy in many parts of Africa, and there is a significant opportunity to invest in and further develop the technology. We need to collaborate to ensure that AI in Africa is under the control of Africans, and ameliorate the technological colonisation by foreign countries and global technology platforms we are experiencing.

African countries should create national AI institutes that will focus on practical research, the development of new AI technologies relevant to its population and the training of the next generation of AI specialists.

The creation of an AI institute in SA was one of the recommendations of the report from the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, gazetted in October 2020. “Research & development, as well as implementation capabilities in AI are thus critical and must be embedded within the state ... The institute’s mandate should also include training, to be delivered across various sections of society, as well as ensuring positive social impact.”

Better late than never, such an institute was established towards the latter half of 2022. In an announcement by communications & digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni it was revealed an AI institute was being launched by the department in co-operation with the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Johannesburg.

In a statement on its website, the University of Johannesburg announced: “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.”

These are lofty goals, and we should all be pleased that this all-important initiative is finally under way. However, there is a critical problem. None of the world-class AI industry leaders in the local market I know were aware of the institute’s creation or launch. I am not aware of any business, academic or societal AI innovators outside the founding institutions who were approached to contribute.

Creating and maintaining an AI institute is a challenging endeavour that is bound to be fraught with obstacles, including funding and regulatory challenges. Unless a large swathe of local AI experts, implementers, philosophers, ethicists, and other cross-discipline academics are involved it will be doomed to fail.

I call on local AI experts from all domains to put up their hands and reach out to the institute in the spirit of ubuntu (I am because others are). We are called on to work together, tirelessly if needed, and take back control of Africa’s technological future.

We need to work on establishing a regulatory environment that balances innovation with ethics and safety. We need to create AI language sets for locally relevant conversational AI digital assistants. We need to create medical imagery data sets representative of locally unique diseases.

The window of opportunity is quickly closing due to the rapid advances in technology. We need to do it right this time.


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