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Skills shortage holding SA back from a bright digital future

A skills shortage is holding back the advancement of AI in South Africa and the country has to urgently address its skills requirements linked to this technology, as well as 5G and cloud computing, if it is to grow its economy.

That was the overriding message to emerge from a virtual media connect session hosted by Huawei yesterday.

Arthur Goldstuck, ICT analyst and MD of World Wide Worx.
Arthur Goldstuck, ICT analyst and MD of World Wide Worx.

Speaking at the event, World Wide Worx founder and ICT analyst Arthur Goldstuck pointed out that, while South African businesses are aware of the need to adopt technologies such as AI, there is often a shortfall when it comes to actually implementing them.

“This is largely down to a skills shortage,” he said, “but there are a lot of promising initiatives, including Huawei’s university partnerships aimed at decreasing that shortage.”

Goldstuck also pointed out that AI on its own can only go so far and will have its most meaningful impact when combined with other technologies, including robotic process automation, cloud-based business modelling, 5G, and Blockchain.

The impact of these technologies is already being seen in several industries.

“The digital storm is upon us,” he said, pointing to the demise of physical music CD’s as one of the most powerful examples of how rapidly industries can be disrupted.

Michael Langeveld, Vice President Africa Cloud Business at Huawei, agreed.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is accelerating our pace towards an intelligent world,” he said.“The impact is translated into the digitalisation of industries across the board.”

Interestingly, the biggest changes aren’t most likely to come from the technologies that look most dramatic (such as 3D printing), but which (almost invisibly) make tasks simpler.

“Technologies that will completely transform industries are those that will replace the physical with the digital and automate tasks,” Goldstuck said, pointing to how bookkeeping software has almost completely eradicated the need for bookkeepers.

Looking forward, he believes that physical banks, petrol stations, and parking garages are the most likely next targets of digital disruption.“Today, cars park themselves. In the future they’ll drive themselves, even across Africa.”

Huawei made the point that cars can’t park or drive themselves without sufficient levels of artificial intelligence, high enough levels of connectivity, and a way to securely store the vast amounts of data they’ll generate and which will be vital to making roads even safer. The same is true for industries across the board.

“Remote monitoring, enabled by the greater speeds of 5G, can, for example, support more precise management of agriculture. An example in the fish farming space would be monitoring and measuring fish to ensure the optimum feeding schedules. For crop farming – under pressure from booming populations and climate change – 5G connectivity now allows constant measurement of soil nutrients and even satellite monitoring of fields to indicate when and how to apply fertiliser, adjuvants, and pesticides for the best possible crop yields,” the company stated.

“Without connectivity these efforts will be hampered,” added Langeveld. “Cloud-based applications are fundamentally changing how we do business and go about our days.”

Job losses

According to Goldstuck, the technological changes driven by AI, 5G, and cloud will come with job losses, particularly among wired telecommunication companies, newspapers, travel agents, and other industries that have traditionally required large amounts of human labour.But that doesn’t mean that new jobs won’t be created.

In particular, Goldstuck points out that there will be a massive surge in demand for individual and family care services, home and healthcare services, outpatient care services, and management technical and consulting services.

He said: “The ‘roaring 20s’ might be driven by AI, but the need for human care is bigger than ever. Being human is the single most important skill of the 2020s.”

Both believe that bringing together the best of technology and people has massive potential for South Africa.

“By using connectivity to bring together people and computing,” said Langeveld, “we can build smart government, smart homes, smart devices, smart energy.”

“That’s why we’ve made a massive investment in this country with four of the hyperscale datacentres that we’ve put together,” he added.

However, as Langeveld pointed out, it’s about more than just investing. “It is very important that we remain trusted, we remain neutral, and we remain embedded in reliable security. We’re not going to achieve this on our own. We believe in new partnerships, not only with businesses but with end customers and our local eco-system partners.”

Ultimately, all of these technologies are still young (mobile networks only began deploying 5G in 2019), but there is very clear hope that they can make the whole world better.

“The truth is, AI can benefit all, and can be leveraged to enhance the lives of all, but only if connectivity does not remain a barrier,” concluded Goldstuck. “There are many nuances to that argument, but that is the essence and the starting point for the discussion.”

In September 2020 South Africa’s Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams emphasised the need for technical skill sets and said South Africa has increasingly looked to invest in AI, with a view to application within healthcare, education and law enforcement.

Opening the AI Expo Africa 2020 virtual conference, 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. “

She 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.

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