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AI’s role in helping Africa adapt to new normal

COVID-19 has highlighted the role technology plays in a crisis and afforded countries like South Africa the opportunity to advance its digital agenda. At the same time, challenges including access to technology, rural connectivity and adequate infrastructure, and the need to create platforms to leverage technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), remain.

This is according to South Africa’s Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who opened the AI Expo Africa 2020 virtual conference hosted this week.

Ndabeni-Abrahams said amid lockdown conditions the government liaised with the tech industry in order to support communities as the government grappled with having to balance health concerns and the impact on people’s livelihoods and the economy.

Various measures to help were implemented including free temporary spectrum via the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) to help manage the increase volume of traffic on networks, certain services to end users were made available free of charge.

This is in addition to the mandate given to the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), established in 2019.

“In a time like this we always call upon all citizens to say ‘let’s do what is best for the country’ but do we have the right platforms to do that becomes another question. So as much as we looked into the importance of what must be done by the digital natives, there were still digital immigrants that we needed to look into. But worst of all, is when you created digital outcasts, people whom, not by choice, could not have access to connectivity and could not have access to technologies, and that’s when reality sank,” said the Minister.

South Africa has increasingly looked to invest in AI, with a view to application within healthcare, education and law enforcement.

The Minister added, “If we engage robustly with the people in the space, we may be able to address the education challenge by deploying AI. In South Africa, we still lack in terms of skills, if we look at maths and science skills, I am focusing on them as part of the STEM subjects that are key to driving the work that we do. “

Ndabeni-Abrahams said AI could be applied via robotics to ensure that healthcare services are made available to rural areas, and also applied in equipment and resources mobilised to fight crime.

Africa’s own narrative

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and Deputy Chair of the 4IR Commission , spoke of the need to make AI relevant to the Africa context.

“As conversations around AI in Africa emerge, around our capabilities, our strategies and addressing our deep-seated problems, it is vital that we create and shape our own narrative. So delivering blood supplies by drone to remote areas in Rwanda, to virtual service advisors in Stellenbosch to medical diagnosis over a mobile phone in Nigeria, Africa is already in large part shaping its AI narrative.”

However, Professor Marwala underlined the importance of timeliness and being in a position to leverage the technology.

“The industrial revolutions historically have passed us by, we have often arrived late, had solutions from other nations transplanted here and seen a distinct gap in development opportunities. We are poised, at the moment in time, where companies and sectors working in AI need to interrogate how they can increase their social impact as the world stands in a perilous moment. For surely, this pandemic presents a window of opportunity to work across multiple spheres, whether it be health commerce, social development or business, to name a few. If AI is the future, what we do today will determine how we carve and shape that future. We have seen what a knock the continent has taken in being late to the previous three revolutions, where gaps in infrastructure still exist today, where we have not yet been able to unleash our potential.”

Professor Marwala advised that rather than Africa remaining a receiving agent of innovation that has materialised elsewhere, the continent needs to intensify its focus on how to make the technology more relevant to address challenges common to all countries that call Africa home.

“… in other words, we are, realistically speaking, not innovating in the same way as US china and other countries. This, of course, does not mean that we have to rewrite the book or start from the beginning. Instead, we need to understand how to interrogate the entire wave of technology that makes up the 4IR, including AI, in a localised context.”

Africa’s AI story needs to address and speak to the context of challenges including unemployment, lacklustre economic growth and poverty, he added.

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