South Africa is not only keeping up with the world in the use of artificial intelligence (AI), but in many cases leading the field, says Adam Selipsky, CEO of Amazon Web Services (AWS), the world’s largest cloud computing provider.
In an exclusive interview with Business Times during this week’s AWS re:Invent 2023 conference in Las Vegas, Selipsky said that AI overturned the conventional distinction between emerging and established markets. This was especially evident in South Africa. with companies like TymeBank and Aerobotics operating at the cutting edge.
“Those examples tell us that geographies like South Africa are keeping up with the rest of the world and, in some cases, leading the world.
“There’s this nomenclature of developing versus developed countries, but I don’t think that matters much for things like generative AI. You’ve got hungry, smart, lean-forward entrepreneurs around the world. You see them in the US, you see them in Europe, you see them in Asia-Pacific, and you see them in Africa and, of course, in South Africa.
“Some of these folks that we’re currently working with really embody that entrepreneurial spirit. And then you’ve got larger companies, many of whom are also leaning into generative AI. Whether it’s retailers or banks or anywhere in between, we’re working with them on AI and I think we’re going to see quick adoption and usage of generative AI in South Africa-based organisations. I don’t see in any way shape or form that being limited to the United States or any other country.”
The re:Invent conference, which drew more than 50,000 delegates, including several hundred AWS customers from South Africa, saw the unveiling of a swathe of new AI tools.
During his keynote address opening the conference, Selipsky announced Amazon Q, a generative AI business assistant aimed at companies, with security and privacy at its heart. Likened by many as a ChatGPT for business, it is designed to help ordinary individuals in an office environment get answers to questions, solve problems, generate content, and take actions using company data and expertise.
Gadget editor-in-chief Arthur Goldstuck speaks to AWS CEO Adam Selipsky.
Unlike ChatGPT, which is known to use content posted on its platform to continue training itself – and sometimes includes that content in responses to other users – Amazon Q will not use business customers’ content to train its underlying models. This addresses a major hurdle to enterprise use of AI, following numerous horror stories of confidential information being leaked accidentally via chatbots.
Selipsky, who was born in Johannesburg to South African parents, moved to the United States with his family when he was 4, but still has a strong affinity for his birth country – not least because of the role it played in the AWS story.
“Howzit,” he greeted this writer before getting serious.
“AWS has a long, long history in South Africa. Our compute service EC2, the Elastic Compute Cloud, was originally built in Cape Town. We had a small team. We were very scrappy. That first version of EC2 was built with about 11 engineers. It was a great team, though, and we grew that team significantly.
“And then, in 2018, we announced that we’re going to be building a South Africa-based infrastructure region in Cape Town, which we launched in 2020. From 2018 to 2022, from when we announced that South African infrastructure region, we invested about R16-billion rand into South Africa. From 2022 to 2029 we anticipate investing an additional R30-billion rand.
“It’s a really important strategic area for us. We’re investing in other ways as well. We really believe in skills and training, and there’s this big gap of cloud skills. We want to make sure that they’re great cloud skills in South Africa, to serve South Africa, to serve all of Africa and globally.
“We have a Skills Centre that we’ve opened in Cape Town, and we’ve trained over 100,000 people in South Africa on Cloud skills. There’s more work to do, but we’re proud of that. Obviously it helps us but it also helps South Africa and provides a lot of people with really important skills that we think are going to be really useful for their own personal growth and economic stability over the coming years.”
While the bulk of the R16-billion already invested would have been allocated to two Cape Town data centres that form what the company calls an “AWS Region”, the next R30-billion will be more about investment in infrastructure, people and skills.
“We don’t currently have plans to add more regions in South Africa. We have plenty of capacity to serve South Africa and all of Africa. Many parts of it rely on the Cape Town Region.”
However, Selipsky did not rule out the possibility of AWS Regions in the rest of Africa.
“We continue to expand. It’s definitely possible. We’re continually evaluating where the next places are our customers need to go. We have 32 publicly available Regions, and we have five more announced that we will be building, some of which are in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand being on that list.
“The two things that really cause you to want to build a Region in a certain area are usually a combination of data residency requirements, folks wanting the data to reside locally, and latency requirements. Between the Regions we have in the Middle East and the Region of Cape Town, we have coverage of broad swaths of Africa in a very effective way. But we’re very open to building more regions as demand dictates.”
In South Africa, demand ranges from small start-ups to giant corporations.
“There are a number of really important, sophisticated customers that need cloud services, from Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay and Old Mutual to (start-ups) doing really cool generative AI things. It spans many different industries.”
Selipsky said he was especially excited about the potential of Amazon Q in business.
“The first generation of chat assistants have not really worked at work, and there are a couple of reasons for that. One of which is because they haven’t been tailored to your business.”
Amazon Q, on the other hand, will “be able to give you tailored, relevant interactions, whether you’re a lawyer, whether you’re an accountant, whether you’re a product manager, whether you’re a designer, whether you’re a manufacturing supervisor. Tailoring to your business will be absolutely key.”