AI is here. And it is everywhere. Furthermore, if it hasn’t yet, it will touch every industry both present and future, and is likely to change all aspects of our lives, writes Michael Shapiro, Synthesis Managing Director.

AI inspires enthusiasm and hope for a more efficient tomorrow and is a valuable differentiator. Its capacity to collect and analyse data, to provide insights, to recognise patterns, and to predict future behaviour has helped companies and countries to innovate. It can track how effectively the human moderators are fighting hate speech and gender abuse on Twitter, and how much progress we’ve made globally against the corona virus.

AI is a panacea for all ills if you like. It has increasingly been harnessed to address a variety of issues, including the use of image recognition, speech detection and self-driving cars. The commercial applications also have indirect positive social impact by increasing the availability of information through better search tools, providing improved communication services, enabling more efficient transportation, or supporting more personalised healthcare1.

Predictably, an AI adoption gap has emerged – on one end are the countries that have embraced AI tools, and on the other, those that have lagged. A PwC study of the economic impact of AIon the world’s economy by 2030, reports that AI has the capacity to increase global GDP by 14%. This makes it the biggest commercial opportunity in the global economy.

It stands to reason that Africa will reap significant economic rewards from AI but is Africa positioned to capitalise on the opportunities and ready itself for growth?

The 2020 Government AI Readiness Index 3 paints a predictably gloomy picture for the African continent.  African countries score low on the AI readiness index. The five highest-ranked African country on the index are Mauritius in 45th position, followed by South Africa in 59th, with Seychelles 68th, Kenya 71st and Rwanda in 87th place.

It is certain that if we do not remain relevant and continue to drive digital adoption and innovation, we will be left behind. But progress comes with its own set of contentions. In a country with a high, and rising unemployment rate, the unsettling question is how industries can balance the introduction (or use) of AI, digitalisation and automation, while maintaining employment numbers.

In the short-term, jobs will be considerably impacted however the benefits of automating simple tasks and dramatically improving our lives cannot be overlooked in the debate. We should also remember that every technological shift in years gone by has ended up creating more jobs than were initially destroyed. So history has taught us that while technology may gradually change the nature of some jobs, and the skills required to perform them, they have not been replaced altogether.

There is an imperative role for both the private sector and government in partnership to play in encouraging the adoption of AI. For example, there should be incentives to promote the use of AI to increase productivity without the loss of jobs. Success is seen when a strong public-private partnership is achieved.

Investment into building the infrastructure needed to support AI deployment at scale is required. As is the extensive and ongoing training to build the necessary skills for an AI workforce – and for jobs that don’t yet exist. Government support for universities and tax relief or innovation funding for entrepreneurial start-ups to develop AI that benefits local endeavours will fast track growth. And we need an uptick in these homegrown success stories.

Addressing the intricate challenges such as inconsistent policy, lack of legal infrastructure the need for appropriate regulatory and ethical frameworks will also help. It is encouraging to note that some of these issues are making an appearance on the national agenda and signs of developing strategies are coming to the fore.

There is also a socio-economic approach at play. We must drive an inclusive approach – every person needs to have an opportunity to participate in the AI economy.  AI-based tech products should solve large-scale issues such as financial inclusion, access to education and credit for all and not just benefit certain income brackets.

While some African countries have been able to leapfrog, others are facing the persistent challenge of catching up. The pace of technological change waits for no man, woman, or in this case, no country. Strong AI adoption and investment today, can set the stage for even better performance in a post-pandemic world.

To end, a lot can be done today to overcome tomorrow’s challenges. Regional and continental support infrastructure is required to drive AI forward. Following the investments made to establish the local data centres in South Africa by cloud providers such as AWS and Microsoft, they should further invest in job creation and skills development to create a digital and AI hub in South Africa and for the rest of Africa. This will provide further support for homegrown success stories, such as Synthesis and Capital Appreciation who regularly host hackathons, support learnerships for disadvantaged youth. They too provide AI technology to organisations such as SA Harvest to create a food rescue and distribution platform aimed at ensuring that every South African has access to adequate nutritious food on a daily basis.5

Finally, a road map for our country and our industry is required – we need to set targets and metrics for 2030 and beyond, to keep us on track to drive the change that we want to achieve.

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