Expert panel considers pros and cons of an AI-driven Africa during LeadUP webinar

Posted on May 30, 2023

Every technological revolution has brought with it numerous benefits in terms of cost and time efficiency, but it has often also resulted in the displacement of workers and certain skills being rendered irrelevant. 

This point was highlighted by a panel of experts at the University of Pretoria (UP) during a recent online event titled ‘AI-driven Africa: How artificial intelligence is changing the world we know’. The event was part of the LeadUP webinar series, which brings leading UP alumni, academics and experts together to discuss various topics, ranging from politics, finance and health to agriculture and education. Participants from various fields of study and sectors of the economy exchanged insights and perspectives about technological developments such as ChatGPT, which has taken the world by storm.

While acknowledging that artificial intelligence (AI) is here to stay, they also looked beyond the threat of job displacement, misuse and abuse of AI, and landed their sights on the opportunities for Africa to use this technology to leap-frog certain stages of development.

“The invention of the steam engine, the assembly line and, more recently, the computer, all resulted in significant shifts in the labour market,” said Professor Wesley Rosslyn-Smith, Director of UP’s Centre for the Future of Work. “AI automations are expected to have a similar impact going forward. Jobs that involve repetitive tasks, routine data analysis and certain customer service roles are at high risk of automation. But, technological revolutions also create new jobs and industries that one cannot fully anticipate. For instance, the rise of the internet created industries that weren’t conceivable a few decades ago, such as e-commerce, social media and app development.” 

The recent World Economic Forum report on the future of jobs stated that in the next five years, 83 million jobs may be lost but that 69 million may be created. The demand for AI and learning specialists is expanding rapidly, and it is projected that there will be an increase of 1 million jobs (40%) as AI machine learning drives industry transformation.

Prof Rosslyn-Smith said this meant that the question Africa should be addressing is how the continent can move forward cautiously with this revolution and strategically invest in its growth capacity.

Emphasis on creating and keeping skills in Africa

“Where we can upskill, we need to motivate and assist employees to do so,” he said. “Where we need to retrench, let us create social safety nets. Where we need to hire, let us ensure that our education system is able to develop those sorts of professionals.” 

He said the level at which businesses deploy AI is already observable, and it is critical for South Africa and Africa to increase their ability to harness this type of technology and deploy it effectively in business. Emphasis must also be placed on creating and keeping skills on the continent. 

“In order for Africa to make a significant impact in the AI space, it would need to have an appetite for cross-border collaborations between companies that are focusing on AI technology on the continent,” said Professor Mmaki Jantjies, Telkom Group Head of Innovation and Transformation. “There must also be clear policies in business, government and other sectors about AI technology. Africa will need a long-term vision where AI is concerned.”

Professor Vukosi Marivate, UP ABSA Chair of Data Science, had recently returned from the first International Conference on Learning Representations hosted in Africa, in Kigali, Rwanda. The conference, which he had helped to organise, looked at the impact of AI technology on the world. 

He called on Africans not to allow themselves to become mere users of AI but to participate in the research and development of the technology, as that would place Africa in a position to influence the direction of AI on the continent and the world. He added that the industry and funders of research and development sponsor work done in Africa but are based in the West.

“This does not capacitate Africans to do the work,” Prof Marivate said. “It becomes very paternalistic in that a Western partner will help you do the work.”

Risk of data bias

He also praised African companies and initiatives that have been operating at a grassroots level in the AI research and development sphere over the past decade. These include the Deep Learning Indaba, Data Science Africa and the Data Scientists Network.

Professor Alta van der Merwe, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, viewed AI technology mainly as a benefit in the education sector. She compared it to a student having a 24-hour tutor that is customised to their educational needs. However, even with its benefits, AI must be approached with caution, she said.

“When it comes to ethical implications on scholarships and academia, because the models are built on existing information such as books and journals, resources might be misused and students might plagiarise without realising it,” Prof Van der Merwe said. “It also poses the risk of data bias because the models are trained mainly from a Eurocentric or American perspective. Thirdly, AI could encourage dependency and lead to students relying heavily on generative AI rather than thinking critically by themselves.”

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Prof Tawana Kupe, who presided over the conversation, opened the discussion by mentioning the benefits of AI for Africa. He said that AI technology could be a crucial tool to improve access to healthcare, and diagnose diseases accurately and timely. In the finance sector, it could help improve access to financial services for individuals and businesses, prevent fraud, and reduce the risk of a financial crisis. It can also revolutionise agriculture by advising farmers about crops and mitigate the impact of global warming.

“One of the greatest fears about AI is that it will lead to job displacement as AI systems automate some jobs previously done by humans,” Prof Kupe said. “We must address this issue head on, and work towards reskilling and upskilling the workforce to adapt to the changing job market. To help achieve this goal, UP launched the Centre for the Future of Work a year ago. The centre conducts research and prepares graduates for the rapidly changing world of work. As the fourth industrial revolution continues to unfold with both disruption and opportunity for innovation, the next generation of workers need to keep pace with breakthroughs in fields such as robotics, nanotechnology, the internet of things, quantum computing and biotechnology.”

- Author James Mahlokwane

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