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SA Insights

SA must commit to digital future – Cisco CEO

Cisco boss Chuck Robbins was in SA last week. He spoke exclusively to ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

In order to use technology to create growth and opportunity, South Africa must get its population fully connected to the internet, says one of the world’s leading technology executives.

During a visit to South Africa this week, Chuck Robbins, CEO of global networking hardware leader Cisco Systems, said in an exclusive interview that, in order to drive growth and prosperity, the country must drive connectivity and digitalisation of services.

“Even the USA has a long way to go in what we need to do, but the core is underlying connectivity and making it broadly available. We’ve got the same issue in the US. That’s why the Broadband Bill has been passed to try to get broadband to everyone. And it’s not just rural areas in the US. It’s parts of urban cities where the underprivileged live.

“Government digitisation in the US has a long way to go in driving a single architecture across government for digitalisation, but we see certain countries that have done an amazing job over the last three to four years.

“You have to fundamentally believe that it’s going to be good for the economy. If you believe that, you’ll make the investments. Once (the population is) connected, you can deliver education, you can deliver aspects of health care, people can now work from wherever they are in certain jobs. So it really opens up huge opportunity when we get everyone connected.”

During his visit, Robbins was expected to announce Cisco’s launch of a second Country Digital Acceleration (CDA) programme in South Africa. The first, initiated in September 2019, saw Cisco invest $9.2-million to help transform the country’s digital economy through three pillars: IT job creation, skills and talent development, and national cybersecurity”.

The CDA global programme, now rolled out in 50 countries across more than 1300 projects, promotes collaboration between government and private sector leaders “to build sustainable, secure, and inclusive communities powered by ethical and innovative technology solutions”.

Arthur Goldstuck, editor-in-chief of Gadget, with Chuck Robbins, CEO of Cisco Systems, in Johannesburg.

Robbins said there would be a continued focus on education, both in South Africa and across Africa.

“There’s a commitment across the continent for 10-million students. There’s investments in delivering education through libraries. There’s connected government. The connected government piece is incredibly critical, looking at everything from the services that the government provides to citizens with connected justice, to using technology to connect and provide more, especially to those that are more at risk.”

While he would not be drawn on specific reasons for South Africa falling behind in the evolution of digital government, he said that the issue usually came to one word: “commitment”.

“You just have to gain conviction on that,” he said. “And you have to believe that. Countries have to look at public private partnerships, where it’s so important for the infrastructure in the country to be built out, and whether that’s going to be done by private carriers or private telecommunications companies. Sometimes it may require a public-private partnership to make those investments, to get that core foundation built, because it’s the backbone of the digital economy.

“Every country is coming to some conclusion that a version of public-private partnerships is going to have to happen. And some countries make it very easy and some countries make it very difficult, by nature of the politics.

“I suspect over the next few days, we will have those discussions. Even in the US we’re having to have these discussions now, because there are technology areas that are so strategic, but the economics aren’t clear yet. What should be super important in South Africa is overall digitalisation and connectivity for the people.

“The other thing that’s really important is ensuring that policy is encouraging investment, encouraging job creation, to try to continue to drive the economy, pushing  digital education for next generation jobs, and creating capacity for talent to drive innovation, creating an innovation economy.”

The CDA, he said, was part of Cisco’s commitment to helping drive that digital development in South Africa.

“Once you get these young students trained and technology, you see this innovative spirit take off and then you start seeing ecosystems pop up and you see innovation hubs begin to get created. It becomes self-perpetuating . There’s so much that can be done here through the use of technology. And if you unleash this smart, next generation, they’ll figure it out, because they grew up with technology, they know how to use it.”

He said Artificial intelligence (AI) would play a major role in Cisco’s technology, and it was likely to make ongoing product announcements.

“We have a flood of features and capabilities that exist in products today that are driven by AI behind the scenes that we didn’t launch as AI features. We launched them as features.

“But looking forward, you will see a flood of enhancements. You’ll see a natural language interface emerge on all the products. You’ll see a policy assistant so customers can use plain English to describe the security policy that they would like to implement, and then our AI technology will translate that through to a technical policy configuration that we would present to the customer. The human has to stay involved and the human would validate it.

“Things like that you’re going to see across the entire portfolio as we move forward. The use cases for generative AI are going to continue to evolve for several years.”

What does he see coming next in AI?

“You’ve got quantum computing on the horizon. So what happens when you combine quantum with generative AI? Like every new technology, there’s incredible opportunity and it’s also scary at the same time. But I do believe that these new technology breakthroughs have the potential to help us get at some of the biggest problems that exist in the world.

“We can learn about how to deal with water supply more effectively around the world, growing food more effectively and in more optimized ways. The amount of technology being used now to optimise crop production is only going to get better.”

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