Artificial intelligence is at the heart of national advancement

Dr Sumarie Roodt (right), Chairperson at the Silicon Cape Initiative and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information Systems in the Commerce Faculty at the University of Cape Town, believes that artificial intelligence can contribute extensively to stimulating economic growth in the post-COVID-19 world. She was speaking a during a session dedicated to the Community of Practice on Student Entrepreneurship at the recent Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2020.

She premised her talk on the importance of entrepreneurship in effective national development, further underlining how much further a nation could advance by incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) in entrepreneurship. "Although many people still associate it with science fiction dystopias, that characterisation is waning as AI develops and becomes more common in our daily lives," Dr Roodt surmised.

She added that even though AI may seem to be a new phenomenon in the world today, it is not a new concept as it came into effect in 1956; it only took decades to develop into reality.

Dr Sumarie Roodt

What does AI entrepreneurship in Africa look like, through the lens of a studentpreneur?

Mr Thapelo Nthite
Naledi Vernac AI

Dr Roodt introduced Mr Thapelo Nthite (above), UCT's Mechatronics Engineer and co-founder of Botlhale AI Solutions. He developed an AI-powered multilingual personal banking assistant called Naledi Vernac AI (above right). This programme assists users in various South African vernacular languages with mobile banking solutions. She said Nthite is passionate about social justice and harnessing technology to reduce inequalities in Africa.

In a short video clip, Nthite explained that widespread bias, lack of representation and diversity in popular global AI systems had motivated his innovation. "The problem is that these programmes are only available in English and other major global languages... which hinders users who mainly speak African languages from benefitting in these technologies meant to simplify their daily lives," he said. Nthite urged African innovators to think critically about the role that they play in ensuring representation of African people in the development of AI systems.

AI as a catalyst for entrepreneurial revolution

Dr Roodt then shared global statistics indicating that AI startups had grown 14-fold over the last two decades. Secondly, investments in AI startups had grown six times since 2000. The bottom line is that AI has the potential to change business forever, Dr Roodt said – adding that this technology can take care of all the mundane tasks that employees currently handle – freeing up their time to be more creative and perform the work machines cannot.

She therefore said it was imperative to crush the myth that AI is replacing human intelligence – arguing that it is rather augmenting it.

Citing a PWC report from 2017 – predicting the economic impact of AI in the world's economy by 2030, Dr Roodt said the study had found that AI could increase the world's gross domestic product (GDP) by 14%, making it the most prominent commercial opportunity in the global economy. However, what concerned Dr Roodt was that the PWC study did not show any AI development in Africa.

Africa is displaying substantial AI advancement

She stated that AI developments in Africa were, in fact, substantial. Naming South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt as artificial intelligence hotspots on the continent, she said although AI innovation undertakings in Africa were still lagging behind those of the US, Europe and Asia, that had not stopped some of the most innovative startups from developing significant solutions on the continent.

"In a world that is increasingly characterised by enhanced connectivity and where data is as pervasive as is valuable, Africa has a unique opportunity to leverage digital technologies to drive large scale transformation competitiveness," she said.

Could 2020 be a tipping point for AI in Africa?

Her answer was yes and no. However, she added that no other continent needs to spend its next dollars more efficiently than Africa. "AI, when used correctly, coupled with clever and innovative data science, is a powerful tool at making better and faster decisions," she said. "The importance of accelerated AI adoption in Africa cannot be overstated, regardless of the drawbacks."

The virtues of entrepreneurial transformation by AI

Demonstrating how the entrepreneurial landscape could transformation through artificial intelligence, Dr Roodt mentioned simplified complexities, enhanced operations and remote work stations becoming a norm alongside digital marketing. All of these stood to increase entrepreneurs' ability to do what they do best as all other business functions become automated.

According to her, these five factors will not only increase efficiencies in business enterprises -- customers also stand to benefit in the AI-inspired entrepreneurial transformation. Because of the increased knowledge of customer needs and wants through improved data analysis, market research and customer service, customers will receive better product offerings. Additionally, AI will offer faster and more flexible service provision to clients. "Indeed it will be a big shift that will see many people going to the drawing board to find the best way to ensure that they keep up with the trends," she said.

...and the not so favourable side to AI

On the dark side, Dr Roodt specified bias and mass facial recognition as two components that could make AI systems development not favourable in Africa. Regarding bias, she reiterated Nthite's concern that the dearth of AI local researchers in Africa could potentially increase bias in these already existing systems, saying most of the solutions built elsewhere may not be applicable in an African setting. She cited IMB-led research showing that data used to train AI sometimes contain implicit racial, gender and audiological biases. She said the number of biased algorithms and AI systems could increase significantly within five years, thus cautioning innovators to be vigilant and ethical in how they develop tests and deploy these systems.

On mass facial recognition applications, she warned that these could be abused – with massive privacy and human rights implications. She cited videos, news and social media mass influencing tools with potential to destabilise society if used for nefarious means. "We need to be very careful about this, and again we need to be ethical in how we develop tests and deploy these systems."

AI will not replace humans

Dr Roodt said for all the benefits that AI presents, there are human characteristics and experiences that no digitised, artificially-created neuro-network can mimic. These are intimacy, intuition and inspiration.

During the Q&A, the questions below were posed to her.

Question: Outside the classroom, how can we help to inspire students to embrace change, AI and innovation?

Answer: One of the most effective things that I have seen in terms of encouraging young adults and particularly also this millennial generation, is through role modelling. If, we can show these young adults that there are relatable people – that has a massive motivational and inspirational component to it. Find relatable role models. Show them that it is possible. Guest lecturers; people from industry, could be those relatable role models. Bring these role models to them, live, to come and talk and engage with them. Activities such as hackathons could be extremely effective. We do it at Silicon Cape Initiative and it works. Universities should have an institutional entrepreneurial policy because, in the end, I have also found that in any settings, policies make a difference. If it is not on paper, it can be hard to support.

Question: How do we make people see that AI will enable us to work smarter?

Answer: The one thing that I think about often is that AI is inherently neutral. I mean technology, on its own, is neither good nor bad. What determines whether it is good or bad is how we choose to use it. The ultimate determinant of what this AI revolution will look like will be us because, in the end, it is humans that are building these systems and deciding how they will be applied. I firstly want to say that is our responsibility.

Technology sometimes gets misrepresented. Media need to be more responsible about what and how they are choosing to report these potential predictions. The narrative needs to show that - in the long term, the gains that AI will bring to the world in terms of jobs will be higher than the losses. There will definitely be losses and they will probably be in the short to medium term, but in the longer term, the ultimate global gains will offset the losses.

Company leaders also need to take accountability and responsibility for people being fearful at the moment. Many people are afraid; understandably. Yes, AI will automate many processes that are currently run by human beings. Leaders within organisations need to take responsibility for reskilling and upskilling their employees based on what they know will be automated. We also need to be more proactive, and let the media outlets know that scare-narrative is not helpful.

The annual EDHE Lekgotla is one of the flagship events of the EDHE Programme. It is a platform for information exchange and sharing of best practices. The thought leadership shared this year was heard by no fewer than 1221 delegates, predominantly students but also comprising academics, senior leaders of South Africa's higher education system and policy makers.

The author, Nqobile Tembe, is a Consultant commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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