Artificial intelligence will transform how the world lives and works. Recent announcements by Google have shown just how powerful Artificial Intelligence (AI) can become. The change is inevitable – but what steps do countries need to take today to ready themselves for an AI-driven future? And is South Africa prepared?
A recent industry-focused AI summit held at the White House put a spotlight on the debate. The event was attended by more than 100 senior government officials, technical experts, business leaders and heads of industrial research labs. At the core of the summit: the US government’s focus on leveraging AI for the benefit of US workers and removing barriers to innovation. With it came an awareness of what achieving that goal will require – including the skills people will need to make the most of the new world of work.
“AI and related technologies are creating new types of jobs and demand for new technical skills across industries,” noted a release issued by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “At the same time, many existing occupations will significantly change or become obsolete. Attendees discussed … a renewed focus on STEM education throughout childhood and beyond, to technical apprenticeships, reskilling, and lifelong learning programs to better match America’s skills with the needs of industry.”
The question remains: how are we faring at home here in South Africa?
If South Africa embraces AI, we can create jobs, grow the economy and improve productivity. All very relevant given our current economic climate, which emphasises the importance of government’s role in enabling AI as a catalyst for growth. AI can open up opportunities to create new value, reinforcing how people drive growth in business. It can also help people be more productive – by some estimates, leading to a 40% increase in labour productivity by 2035.
Yet change isn’t far off. According to 2017 research conducted by Accenture, in five years’ time, more than half of consumers and enterprise clients will select products and services based on a company’s AI, instead of the company’s more traditional “brand”. In seven years’ time, most interfaces will not have a screen and will be integrated into daily tasks.
According to Karthik Venkataraman, Head of Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation at Accenture Technology, “South African companies need to shape their own journeys towards becoming responsible users and creators of AI. This will require an understanding of our unique business and economic environments, as well as finding relevant partner for this endeavour.”
In South Africa, Accenture research found that some 78% of local executives say they need to boost their organisation’s competitiveness by innovating through investments in AI technologies. However, only about a third of these organisations are planning significant AI investments over the next three years.
Obstacles remain to AI uptake in South Africa. On one hand, companies are often weighed down by legacy infrastructure, technologies, systems, business models and outdated corporate structuring. At the same time, our workforce is not yet ready for the AI revolution already underway in other parts of the world. Indeed, like workers in many countries elsewhere, South Africans are concerned that AI may affect their jobs and even worsen income inequality. Further issues relate to the quality of education in South Africa (from primary to university levels), the capabilities of our scientific research institutions, as well the quality of our national innovation ecosystems and our lack of a national collaborative mindset.
A July 2017 AI roundtable hosted by Accenture and GIBS Business School revealed both concerns and possible solutions. Rather than replacing humans, it was argued, AI should be harnessed to increase workers’ productivity, with organisations focusing on reskilling their workforces and ensuring inclusive economic growth remains the ultimate goal.
Given that AI has the potential to see certain jobs automated – potentially worsening inequality and eroding incomes for some parts of the population for a period – the imperative for responsible AI, and for policymakers to proactively address and pre-empt its downsides is real. Among the critical issues: identifying the groups most at risk of job displacement and creating strategies that focus on reskilling and retraining people so they can be successfully reintegrated into an AI-driven economy. Sound rules, regulations, governance guardrails and economic policies will also play critical enabling and protective roles.
At the core, the most significant challenges to the adoption of AI are no different in South Africa than anywhere else. They are about preparing people for the intellectual, technological, political, ethical and social questions that will arise as AI becomes more deeply integrated into our lives.
To prepare South Africa – and South African companies – for what’s to come, policymakers must clear the path and help prepare the next generation accordingly. More than this, a strong code of ethics will be needed to make sure growth is inclusive; infrastructure barriers must be removed and a collaborative ecosystem put in place to support AI development. South Africa must start building the competencies it needs to participate in an AI-driven future today.
Small South African town goes smartphone-only
Vodacom partners with farming business to upgrade all residents of Wakkerstroom from 2G devices to smartphones
All residents of the small town of Wakkerstroom, which straddles Mpumalanga and kwaZulu-Natal provinces, have had their 2G feature phones upgraded to 3G devices.
The initiative is a result of Vodacom partnering with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs the majority of the people living in Wakkerstroom. It is now the first smartphone-only town in South Africa. This is a model the network provider says it hopes to replicate across the country as part of its mission to connect people who live in deep rural areas and are still dependent on 2G networks.
Wakkerstroom, is the second oldest town in Mpumalanga province, on the KwaZulu-Natal border, 27 km east of Volksrust and 56 km south-east of Amersfoort.
“There are growing expectations for big corporates the size of Vodacom to serve a social purpose, and for us to use our resources and core capabilities to make a significant contribution in transforming the lives of ordinary people,” says Zakhele Jiyane, Managing Executive for Vodacom Mpumalanga. “We are helping to remove communication barriers, so that citizens in the area can be part of the digital revolution and reap the associated benefits. By moving the more than 1400 farm workers from 2G to 3G devices, this will also free much needed spectrum and this spectrum can be re-farmed to provide for faster networks such as 3G and 4G.
“Crucially, the move opens a new world of connectivity for farm workers in Wakkerstroom. As a result, most people in the area will now be able to use the Vodacom network to connect on the net and access online government services, eHealth services such as Mum&Baby and eCommerce. Learners can now surf the internet for the first time and access Vodacom’s eSchool free of charge and those who are actively looking for jobs can start using their smartphones and tablets to apply for jobs over the internet on Vodacom’s zero-rated career sites. This will be key for driving growth to the benefit of people living in this area.”
Vodacom has already deployed 4G base stations in Wakkestroom as part of this initiative.
For the next phase of this project, says Vodacom, it is going to educate the farm workers about data and the benefits of the Internet. Vodacom will also look at various ways in which it can help empower members of this community in areas of education, gender-based violence and health.
10 more African countries join Facebook fact-checking
Facebook today announced the expansion of its Third-Party Fact-Checking programme to 10 additional African countries, which now join Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Senegal in the project,
In partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the France 24 Observers, Pesa Check and Dubawa, this programme forms part of its work in helping assess the accuracy and quality of news people find on Facebook, whilst reducing the spread of misinformation on its platform.
Working with a network of fact-checking organizations, certified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, third-party fact-checking will now be available in Ethiopia, Zambia, Somalia and Burkina Faso through AFP, Uganda and Tanzania through both Pesa Check and AFP, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire through the France 24 Observers and AFP, Guinea Conakry through the France 24 Observers, and Ghana through Dubawa.
Feedback from the Facebook community is one of many signals Facebook uses to raise potentially false stories to fact-checkers for review. Local articles will be fact-checked alongside the verification of photos and videos. If one of our fact-checking partners identifies a story as false, Facebook will show it lower in News Feed, significantly reducing its distribution.
Kojo Boakye, Facebook Head of Public Policy, Africa, said: “The expansion of third-party fact-checking to now cover 15 countries in a little over a year shows firsthand our commitment and dedication to the continent, alongside our recent local language expansion as part of this programme. Taking steps to help tackle false news on Facebook is a responsibility we take seriously, we know misinformation is a problem, and these are important steps in continuing to address this issue. We know that third-party fact-checking alone is not the solution, it is one of many initiatives and programmes we are investing in to help to improve the quality of information people see on Facebook. While we’ve made great progress, we will keep investing to ensure Facebook remains a place for all ideas, but not for the spread of false news.”
When third-party fact-checkers fact-check a news story, Facebook will show these in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed. Page Admins and people on Facebook will also receive notifications if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false, empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.
Providing fact-checking in English and French across eight countries, Phil Chetwynd, AFP Global News Director said: “AFP is delighted to be expanding its fact-checking project with Facebook. We are known for the high quality of our journalism from across Africa and we will be leveraging our unparalleled network of bureaus and journalists on the continent to combat misinformation.”
Eric Mugendi, Managing Editor from Pesa Check who will provide fact-checking services in Swahili and English added: “Social networks like Facebook haven’t just changed how Africans consume the news. Social media is often the primary access to digital content or the ‘Internet’ for many Africans. They shape our perceptions of the world, our public discourse, and how we interact with public figures. This project helps us dramatically expand our fact-checking to debunk claims that could otherwise cause real-world harm. The project helps us respond more quickly and directly. We’re seeing real positive results in our interactions with both publishers and the public itself. The project also helps our fact-checks reach a far larger audience than we would otherwise. This has helped us better understand the information vacuum and other viral dynamics that drive the spread of false information in Africa. Our growing impact is a small but tangible contribution to better informed societies in Africa.”
Caroline Anipah, Programme Officer, Dubawa (Ghana) said: “Dubawa is excited to be in Ghana where the misinformation and disinformation have become widespread as a result of technological advancement and increasing internet penetration. Dubawa intends to raise the quality of information available to the public with the ultimate aim of curbing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and promoting good governance and accountability.”
Derek Thomson, editor-in-chief of the France 24 Observers, said: “Our African users are constantly sending us questionable images and messages they’ve received via social media, asking us ‘Is this true? Can you check it?’ It’s our responsibility as fact-checking journalists to verify the information that’s circulating, and get the truth back out there. Participating in the Facebook programme helps ensure that our fact-checks are reaching the people who shared the false news in the first place.”