Academia, private sector and civil society have signed an expression of interest (EoI) aimed at bringing together experts to lead the development of artificial intelligence (AI) in South Africa and establish an internationally aligned AI institute.
Inked during the virtual AI Dialogue South Africa conference, the EoI seeks to leverage the collective strengths, insights, knowledge and thought leadership of multiple stakeholders to collaborate and realise the benefits of AI.
It also intends to use the platform to mitigate risks, develop inclusive products, services and solutions, advise policy, regulation and standards and generate prosperity for all citizens, as well as develop a stakeholder-led and government-supported AI Institute of South Africa.
Artificial intelligence is no longer a technology of the future, but one that is widely used today, said University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor and principal Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.
“As the pandemic threatens economies, including our own, research suggests that tapping into AI could be the answer to subverting this.”
He cites research showing that AI could double yearly economic growth rates by 2035 and could increase labour productivity by up to 40%.
Introducing the draft document, Convergence Partners chairperson Andile Ngcaba explained that the EoI was developed as a consortium or structure to promote and advocate for the establishment of a responsible AI ecosystem in South Africa and to guide stakeholder dialogue, consultation and engagement.
“We really need, as a country, business and academia, to come together to leverage our collective strengths and knowledge to put together something that we believe that would deliver benefits to our country.”
The initiative is being driven by Convergence Partners, Accenture, the University of Johannesburg, Digital Council Africa and Sun & Shield Technologies, with the platform aiming to involve representative groups comprising key sectors involved in the development of AI in South Africa.
These include academia and research, business communities, civil society, human rights activists, nonprofit organisations, labour, startups and small, medium-sized and microenterprises, the legal fraternity, woman and youth and government.
The structure is also aligned with other initiatives enabling AI globally.
“We are not alone in debating AI. A number of countries have gone through this in Asia, Europe, North America and others,” he added, noting that there are several such initiatives at the global level, including the Allen Institute for AI, the Advanced Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Nordic AI Artificial Intelligence Institute, besides others.
The transdisciplinary initiative intends to start a dialogue, consult widely and engage stakeholders, identify gaps and potential solutions in respect of AI in the South African context; develop an AI public-private collaboration framework to guide initiatives going forward; and craft an inclusive human-centred context-based AI strategy to benefit the country.
It will work towards using AI to take South Africa forward on its own unique digital journey, building and developing a resilient AI ecosystem, at the national, provincial and local level.
The EoI also outlines intentions to share leading practices among the Al ecosystems of the participants and promote ethical governance frameworks for the trusted, safe and responsible development and use of Al technologies; as well as support the use of AI technologies to assist in protecting the human rights of all South Africans.
“A responsible AI environment in South Africa will require an ecosystem that takes into consideration our unique context, Constitution, legacy, history, culture, diversity and language,” said Marwala.
He noted that women need to play a leading role in the AI ecosystem and the technology adopted should not worsen an already wide gender digital gap.
Further, with the youth unemployment rate in South Africa at an all-time high of 59%, young people also need to be at the centre of the AI ecosystem, advancing skills and creating job opportunities.
The AI Institute of South Africa will assume the role of AI community advocacy and government advisory to advice policy direction; establish work streams in accordance with available expertise: health, education, mining, automotive and others; and represent South Africa in global AI forums and initiatives.
It will also be responsible for convening a yearly AI symposium for all stakeholders, create awareness and engage in bilateral and multilateral knowledge transfer with other AI global institutes.
Meanwhile, the consortium intends to establish a private sector-led AI Development Fund to fund AI startups, incubators and accelerators, support the export of local AI initiatives, products, services and solutions; establish an AI marketplace for AI startups and assemble teams to compete in global AI competitions.
It also intends establishing a private sector-led AI Research Fund to provide grants for academia, research and development and developing an AI School curriculum for early introduction in schools.