UP PhD candidate researches impact of AI in Africa through lens of ubuntu

Posted on October 20, 2023

The intersection of ubuntu ethics and artificial intelligence (AI) is a fascinating study that forms the basis of University of Pretoria (UP) PhD candidate Katleho Mokoena’s doctoral research. In fact, it’s partly why the theology student was invited earlier this year as one of 50 young South African scientists under the age of 40 to deliver a presentation at the eighth BRICS Young Scientist Forum.

“My research topic is an interdisciplinary study of AI from the perspective of African theology and African philosophy,” Mokoena (32) says. “I am interested in this research because of my understanding that while technology is a powerful resource, it is not neutral, in the sense that it has both the ability to contribute positive change to society and the ability to disempower individuals and communities. There are thus ethical implications to the power of technology.”

The forum, which took place in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) from 31 July to 2 August 2023, featured 200 master’s and PhD students from BRICS nations, and centred on three primary themes: climate change and environmental sustainability; the future of education, including mindset and skill set; and the outlook for society.

The final-year student, who hails from eMalahleni (Witbank), holds a Bachelor of Theology and a Master of Theology from UP, and is pursuing his doctorate with UP’s Department of Systematic and Historical Theology in the Faculty of Theology and Religion. He is an ordained Minister of the Word in the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, and has experience as a teacher assistant at UP and as a lecturer at the University of South Africa. In addition to presenting academic papers locally and internationally, Mokoena has done research for private companies and NGOs. He has also had peer-reviewed articles published in academic journals.

Katleho Mokoena

UP PhD candidate Katleho Mokoena delivers a presentation on AI and the future of higher education in South Africa at the eighth BRICS Young Scientist Forum.

“My focus on the impact of AI is in the African context generally and South Africa specifically,” Mokoena explains. “It’s important to trace the impact of technology in Africa since the first Industrial Revolution, which contributed to the enslavement of Africans to the Americas and the colonisation of Africa.”

Some scholars argue that emerging technologies in the fourth industrial revolution will lead to the recolonisation of Africa, while others believe that AI should be utilised to contribute to the economic development of Africa. Mokoena argues that despite AI’s potential to disrupt socio-economic structures, Africa still faces a lack of digital infrastructure, socio-economic inequalities, a digital divide, unemployment, poverty and many forms of discrimination. Therefore, the development and adoption of AI in Africa needs to take this context into account in order to avert the risks of emerging technologies and maximise their benefits.

“AI is not neutral, and there are biases in the creation of AI models, which can reinforce discrimination and exclusion,” Mokoena says. This includes automated decision-making processes based on race and gender. “There are concerns that AI may exacerbate unemployment as mundane tasks can be automated. Another aspect is that AI models are mostly not contextual in Africa. For instance, African languages are not adequately translated by AI models.”

While he can’t dispute the benefits of AI, Mokoena believes that the risks should not outweigh the benefits. For him, ubuntu inherently promotes and respects human dignity. As such, he argues, human dignity should remain central to the development and deployment of technologies that emerge. He says ubuntu is holistic and that one cannot be umuntu (human) and isolated from the community, spirituality and the environment. Ubuntu is embedded in the community and is characterised by the phrase “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” (“I am because we are”).

“As much as technology can help society, we should not be overly reliant on it to the extent that we lose our sense of spirituality,” Mokoena says, adding that that we should not put so much trust in technology to solve all problems of humanity.

AI also has an impact on the environment, he points out, in that AI models need data centres, and data centres need physical spaces, massive amounts of water and electricity in order to operate.

“A solution is for AI models to be built at small scale and be contextualised to solve specific problems, rather than building large AI models without context to try to solve everything,” Mokoena says. “It is imperative that technology is mitigated to avoid causing injustice, because human life is more important than technological advancements.”

- Author James Mahlokwane

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