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SA comes under intensive Amazon focus

The $4-billion AI investment by AWS into Anthropic has significant implications across Africa, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The $4-billion AI investment by AWS into Anthropic has significant implications across Africa, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

A $4-billion investment announced on Monday by Amazon Web Services (AWS) into Anthropic, one of the hottest artificial intelligence (AI) startups in the world, has set the scene for the next phase in the generative AI race, kicked off by OpenAI’s ChatGPT last November.

While AWS will become Anthropic’s cloud computing provider, the startup will also have access to the cloud giant’s full compute infrastructure, referring to the services that provide processing power in the cloud. AWS already runs a platform called Amazon Bedrock, which makes third party AI models like Claude, Anthropic’s rival to ChatGPT, available to its customers.

South African-born David Brown, senior vice president of AWS Compute, was in Sandton for the AWS Summit at the time of the announcement. He told Business Times that the deal would be of great significance to South Africa and the rest of the continent.

“Generative AI is definitely going to play a role in Africa. Our focus is about price-performance. It’s about, how do I get more performance for every Rand that I spend? That’s going to be key to developing markets.

“You’re not going to have a business that can afford some of the levels of investments (in AI) that you’ve seen from some of these really big players. We don’t have enough venture funds in some of these developing countries, so we’ve got to innovate like crazy on the (AI) models. We have to innovate on the hardware, make services available that can allow businesses within developing countries like South Africa to take advantage of these things. It’s something that they can say, hey, I can deploy this thing and it can make my customers’ lives better.”

Brown was part of the team that built the original AWS cloud, known as EC2, at a Cape Town development centre from 2004 to 2006. It kicked off the global cloud computing revolution, and set the company on a trajectory to becoming Amazon’s most profitable division. Last year, it contributed $80-billion to revenue and $23-billion in operating profit.

During the AWS Summit on Tuesday, Brown told more than 4,000 delegates that the Cape Town team never imagined the impact they would make.

“There’s been so much learning and breakthrough since those early years, and we’ve only accelerated our pace of innovation.”

Last month, Cape Town again leaped to the fore of AWS strategy, when the company announced it would be the site of its third Skills Centre globally, and the first outside the USA.

Chris Erasmus, South African country manager AWS, told Business Times on the sidelines of the AWS Summit that the focus was on access to skills and enablement on the continent.

“I can access the Internet, I can sign up or skill up at any point to study for something, but there are many individuals who don’t have access to Internet connectivity, a mobile device, or the funds needed in order to upskill in terms of the job market.

“The Skills Centre allows individuals to walk in and to sign up on the spot, whether they have access to mobile devices, have access to the Internet, it doesn’t really matter. So it’s bringing access to the masses and to everyone.

“As we looked at new areas, firstly, we have a big presence and lots of history in South Africa. But secondly, we believe that it’s one of the areas where we can make the biggest impact because of the need for access to skills and to enablement. Three days after launching the Skills Centre, we were fully booked for the following two months. It shows that there’s a desire and hunger for these skills.”

Erasmus said there was massive interest in the Anthropic investment and its ChatGPT rival Claude.

“In South Africa there is huge interest already, specifically in financial services. A lot of the financial services institutions are looking at use cases. They are already starting to run proofs of concept leveraging the likes of Amazon Bedrock. That will be the key industry that we will see the most progress in quite early. Other organisations look to financial services to be the ones to essentially make it safe and secure. Once they’ve solved for something, it becomes easy for everyone else to adopt it.”

Erasmus confirmed that South Africa was still high on the radar of head office.

“Cape Town was essentially the genesis for AWS, we have a big development center here and we’ve continued to invest based on that. So it is a big priority market for us. We care deeply about Africa as a continent and we believe South Africa can help us enter some of those other markets and to make an impact.”

AWS has a goal of training 29-million people in information and communications technology skills over the next five years, and is halfway to that goal. Among other, it has partnered with the Gqeberha-based Leva Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aims to bridge the digital divide, in a project initially aimed at teaching coding to 10,000 learners.

Leva’s engagement manager Jackson Tshabalala told the audience during the AWS Summit keynote session: “We’re not merely teaching coding, but we are igniting a spark that will set an entire generation on fire with digital progress.”

He later told Business Times: “AWS has allowed us to expand dramatically, reaching over 60,000 learners and training about 30,000 teachers. We’ve been able to explore and expand in Africa and in Europe. Recently we did a training session with AWS and communities in Dublin, where master trainers were trained all the way from Germany to the United Kingdom.”

Originally a project from Nelson Mandela University, with Leva as implementation partner. the idea was to teach digital skills and coding without the use of computers or the Internet, in rural and township schools.

It has been a revelation to both Leva and AWS that its methods are globally relevant.

“We found the tools that we’ve been using do more than teach coding without computers. We teach coding skills that allow for problem solving. In other words, computational skills such as decomposition, pattern recognition, algorithm design, as well as abstraction, are relevant in any kind of setting.”

The lightbulb moment, he said, was when Leva wanted to introduce offline coding to a school that said it already had computers and Internet access, but still wanted the skills.

“We asked, what are we actually teaching them? Are we just teaching coding? And they said, ‘No, you teach computational thinking’. When we did it in Europe, it worked really well, and we realised that we have a global solution that has been birthed from Africa.”

* This article first appeared on The Sunday Times.

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