Wits invites research community to join consortium advancing AI use for Africa

8th September 2021 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) offer huge opportunities for development and progress in Africa, and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) invites Africa’s research community to join its newly formed AI Africa Consortium, which aims to develop a collaborative network focused on the advancement of AI and the application of AI in research and innovation.

“To fully participate in the twenty-first century, we must use this scientific renaissance to drive innovation and foster the growth of a strong scientific ecosystem. In so doing, we can play an active role in achieving true progress and help steer the socioeconomic trajectory of the African continent,” Wits University vice-chancellor and principal Professor Zeblon Vilakazi said during the virtual opening of the AI Expo Africa 2021 conference this week.

Wits has partnered with Cirrus AI, a private sector-led initiative that aims to bring large-scale AI infrastructure capacity and world-class expertise to the doorstep of African universities, research institutions, researchers and industry collaborators.

“Cirrus is an initiative that aims to secure funding to establish, among other things, the first AI supercomputer hub in Africa, which will be located at Wits. Cirrus has already formed partnerships and relationships with stakeholders in the AI space throughout the world,” explained Wits director of Innovation Strategy and AI Africa Consortium project leader Professor Barry Dwolatzky.

“This partnership will promote and drive AI innovation and entrepreneurship through the infrastructure, engineering capacity and learning programmes that will be set up. Student participation and training will be central in our efforts to develop AI skills in Africa,” he added.

Further, the consortium will also lead engagement and coordination with government agencies and nonprofit research institutions on the adoption of Cirrus. It will support data science practices across research fields and aid local academic and research institutions to stimulate AI research and advance the application of AI in industry.

“Wits has Africa’s largest grouping of researchers and postgraduate students working in the disciplines of data science, AI and ML. We invite all members of the African Research Universities Alliance, as well as from other universities and research institutions in Africa to join the AI Africa Consortium and help us grow Africa’s footprint on the global research output map,” Wits Research and Innovation deputy vice-chancellor Professor Lynn Morris said.

Tier-one consortium members will each appoint an ambassador, who will participate in the Ambassador Advisory Network, which is responsible for building the network and negotiating benefits on behalf of the members of the consortium.

“Through international collaborations already established by Cirrus AI, the consortium will link members with the global AI network,” Dwolatzky explained.

“There are huge opportunities to create economic activity and solve problems drawing from AI and ML. This will guarantee the future of our society for generations to come,” Vilakazi said.

The consortium will also provide researchers with access to hardware, software and data and ML engineers. Although it is implied, it is often overlooked that infrastructure is useless without the supporting engineering to assist in making use of it, Wits said in a September 8 statement.

Collaborators will also have access to state-of-the-art computing capability where members will have free access to the powerful supercomputing platform housed at Wits. Members will also have access to a Digital Asset Locker to ensure ample storage capacity to store data for use in ML and activities in AI

Further, researchers will have access to a sandbox to try out concepts and ideas, as well as access to co-development programmes for AI research and learning.

The consortium will also host yearly summer and winter school programmes to build AI skills, and saloon and teatime talks to share information across Africa and beyond.