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Cape Town, South Africa — Photo by @finding_dan

Artificial Intelligence in South Africa

Is There Any Strategic Focus on AI in South Africa?

In June 2019 the MIT Technology Review stated that “The future of AI is in Africa”. According to the article IBM Research opened its first African office in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2016. However there is still a lack of talent available to fill roles. In South Africa, despite a nearly 50 percent youth unemployment rate, three quarters of companies struggle to fill engineering roles It is said that there are too few AI researchers on the continent.

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Artificial Intelligence for Africa: An Opportunity for Growth, Development, and Democratisation

Recently the University of Pretoria in South Africa pointed out in a report that AI was an opportunity for growth, development and democratisation if properly implemented. This report was written together with Access Partnership that is a company registered in England and Wales. They work with public policy and market access, as such I would likely take every word of the report with a healthy grain of salt (although it can be helpful read it).

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Image from the report explaining AI applications.
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  1. In financial services they mentioned Strider — A South African fintech company that provides a toolbox of platforms that banks and financial institutions can rapidly white-label in order to provide financial education and meaningful services to new and existing clients. DataProphet is a South African startup focused on machine learning solutions for business. Its early work has focused on the finance and insurance sector, designing solutions such as predictive analytics and conversation agents. The company, now four years old and already beginning to turn a profit, is also expanding into industrial and fast-moving consumer goods sectors, including international clients.
  2. In healthcare Numberboost, a South African company, has been working with a non-profit that manages many mobile HIV clinics to give access to patients in different rural communities. To do so, it implemented an algorithm to spatially optimise the scheduling of the clinics and also built a USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) clinic booking system using text messages. Numberboost is currently working on an African language SMS chatbot to enable patients to ask basic medical questions.

AI in South Africa Academia

According to the same report The University of Pretoria (UP) in South Africa created the Intelligent Systems Group (ISG)45 , which specialises in the theory and application of systems that perceive, reason, learn, and act intelligently. The aim of the group is to create real-world intelligent systems applicable in the South African context. Its areas of research focus include:

  • music and AI;
  • radio systems planning;
  • remote sensing.

Summary

AI in South Africa is still relatively nascent with a few upcoming use cases and a lack of government strategy to facilitate the use or discussions of ethical or industry aspects of artificial intelligence. I might be wrong as I have not seen all available information on the matter, however from a surface look at the matter I would say there is a promising focus in South Africa with recent private and public initiatives that really could push the AI community forward in the coming years. However the answer to the question in the introduction is still no: there is no apparent strategic focus on AI in South Africa at the current time.

Written by

AI Policy and Ethics at www.nora.ai. Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own. twitter.com/AlexMoltzau

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