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Artifical Intelligence

AI race needs as many
runners as possible

SA does not have to place bets on an AI winner, writes CHRIS ERASMUS, Amazon Web Services GM for South Africa.

Right now, public discourse around artificial intelligence (AI) is centred on speculation about who will win the AI race. But when we’re just three steps into a 10k run, where should South Africa place its bets to ensure it achieves its ambition to become a global player in tech? 

Rather than focusing on who will win the race, we believe the priority should be getting as many runners on the track as possible and ensuring that every single South African business has the opportunity to unlock the potential of AI and compete on the world stage. In fact, this is not a winner-takes-all situation; there is potential for many winners in this race. 

Yet, getting more runners onto the track without first providing them with the right environment, the right support, and the right training is akin to opening up the Olympic Park and expecting the visiting public to run a 100m at the speed of Usain Bolt. One or two may surprise us, of course, but the majority of businesses will require more support. 

So, what does the ‘right’ AI environment look like ? 

Firstly, creating an optimal environment requires more than just technology; it is reliant on deep collaboration between governments and industry to adopt and promote a safe and responsible approach to AI. Global cooperation will be critical, because the opportunities and risks presented by AI models are fundamentally global in nature. The AI Safety Summit is an opportune moment for industry, governments, and civil society to align around a shared vision for ensuring that AI is safe, secure, and responsible, and it comes at a crucial moment in the continuing development and public understanding of AI.

Chris Erasmus, Amazon Web Services GM for South Africa.

Secondly, South African businesses need greater choice and flexibility so they can easily access and select the AI solutions that best meet their needs. That’s because not every AI model works for all use cases; no one size fits all. Giving customers the choice and freedom to experiment with different AI models to find out what works best for their business, without incurring large costs, is critical for increasing adoption and ensuring AI can be applied to a range of business types and problems. 

Thirdly, our country desperately needs address the digital skills gap. It’s no secret that digital and tech skills are in great demand across numerous industries. The longer we leave this gap to widen, our economy will struggle to grow, but our unemployment rate certainly will not. 

Everyone knows that behind great athletes are great coaches who help them hone their skills and stay competitive. Affordable and robust training programmes need to be put in place and promoted by both businesses and the government to create a future pipeline of talent equipped with both basic and advanced digital skills to propel the South African AI innovation forward. 

At Amazon, we also provide support for programmes that empower underrepresented individuals in AI and machine learning to foster a more equitable and inclusive AI environment, whether that’s through our AWS AI & ML Scholarship Programme, or our Machine Learning University, which helps to increase digital literacy in responsible AI. 

The transformative potential of AI is clear. By actively supporting local innovation across South Africa, the Government has the opportunity to not only achieve – but accelerate – its ambition to be a global tech player. But to accomplish this, we must ensure all South African businesses have the right support, tools, and skills to successfully get off the starting blocks. 

South Africa has a longstanding reputation as a leader in digital adoption on African soil. The time is now to lace up and capitalise on this advantage by empowering South African businesses of all sizes, and across all sectors, to embrace AI and succeed. We’ve been getting ready. We’re all set. It’s now time to go. 

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