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.

There are developments in artificial intelligence, however there is no national strategy for artificial intelligence such as seen in other countries.

Still by some measures (the AI Readiness Index as an example) South Africa is one of the countries that will be the most ready. The overall score of each country is comprised of input metrics, grouped under four high-level clusters: governance; infrastructure and data; skills and education; and government and public services. The data is derived from a variety of resources, ranging from their desk research into AI strategies, to databases such as the number of registered AI startups on Crunchbase, to indices such as the UN eGovernment Development Index. South Africa places 68th in the world on this index.

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).

However the language is so slanted into heavy optimism that it is hard to have a sober view throughout the report. On the other hand this can be said of some national strategies as well, so it is not unique to this document in particular.

The report maps stakeholders, challenges and promotion of AI in South Africa.

Image from the report explaining AI applications.

It has the upwards graphs from Accenture.

Not that I disagree about the potential of artificial intelligence.

  1. They mention agriculture as important with Artificial intelligence agricultural start-ups in South Africa including, Aerobotics, MySmartFarm, DroneClouds
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

They additionally map specific policy initiatives such as The South African Department of Trade and Industry formed a Chief Directorate for Future Industrial Production and Technologies (FIP&T) in 2017 to examine the impacts of emerging digital technologies, including the Internet of Things, big data, AI, robotics, and new materials. The unit aims to build government capacity to address these challenges and partner with industry to enhance South Africa’s readiness.42 Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has also said that the government aims to boost its investment in research and development, support for entrepreneurs, and skills development.

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:

  • digital image processing and computer vision;
  • music and AI;
  • radio systems planning;
  • remote sensing.

The members of the ISG collaborate with centres and institutes around the world, including Cambridge University Engineering Department, the United States Office of Naval Research, and the United States Space and Naval Warfare Center. The University of Pretoria also established the Institute of Big Data and Data Science in September 2017. In the Computer Science Department research groups, namely, NICOG and CIRG focus on different areas and application of AI technologies.

The Centre for AI Research (CAIR) in South Africa is a research network that aims to contribute to South Africa’s digital transformation, strengthen the country’s economic competitiveness and enable an enhanced quality of life for all South Africans through cross-disciplinary research and capacity building. It has nodes at five South African universities: The University of Cape Town, University of KwaZulu-Natal, North-West University, University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University.

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.

PS: if you know more about AI strategy in Africa and disagree please send me a response here or DM me on Twitter @alexmoltzau.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 244. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. My current focus for 100 days 200–300 is national and international strategies for artificial intelligence.

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