Much like a microcosm of our socio-economic context, the artificial intelligence (AI) landscape in South Africa is uneven and burdened with regulatory challenges. If not addressed, these challenges could give more power to those who already control AI systems, evoking concerns about power dynamics and how the role of humans will be redefined. The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into the deep end, necessitating a swifter move towards a digitally transformed society.
It is against this backdrop that businesses, academia, civil societies, human rights activists, labour movements, non-profit organisations, SMMEs, the legal fraternity, women and youth organisations signed the Expression of Interest (EoI) recently at the AI Dialogue South Africa that took place virtually. The EoI provides a platform for cooperation and leverages the collective strengths, insights, knowledge and thought leadership of multiple stakeholders for the realisation of AI benefits. The EoI will promote the responsible use of AI and establish an ethical framework with regulation and standards in mind while allaying many of the fears associated with the technology.
“The past few weeks have shown how AI is at risk of being biased and manipulated,” said Andile Ngcaba, chairman for Convergence Partners. “Facial recognition has come under fire recently for mass surveillance, racial profiling and violations of basic human rights. Large corporations have also pulled plugs off their facial recognition missions.
“These inherent personal and environmental biases need discussion and options need to be considered. We need to build our own AI ontology and vocabulary that will take into consideration the SA constitution, legacy, history, culture, diversity and languages.”
The AI Dialogue South Africa is spearheaded by Convergence Partners, Accenture, University of Johannesburg, Digital Council Africa and Sun & Shield Technologies. This transdisciplinary initiative intends to:
• Initiate a dialogue, consult widely, engage stakeholders, and identify gaps and potential solutions in respect of AI in the South African context.
• Develop an AI public-private collaboration framework within appropriate bounds to guide initiatives going forward.
• Craft an inclusive human-centred and context-based AI approach to benefit South African society.
• Assist the South African National Data Strategy by allowing for discussions around the protection of privacy, promotion of data security and open data-enabled innovation.
• Provide a platform that directs interested parties to information regarding the safeguarding of the rights and wellbeing of all South Africans.
• Build and develop a resilient AI ecosystem at the national, provincial and local level.
• Encourage the sharing of leading practices among the Al ecosystems.
• Promote ethical governance frameworks for the trusted, safe, and responsible development and use of Al technologies.
• Support the use of AI technologies to assist in the protection of human rights of all South Africans.
This non-state actors’ consortium will make up the stakeholder-led AI Institute of South Africa. The institute will be responsible for annual AI symposiums and will consult with the government on AI policy while representing South Africa in global AI forums and initiatives. It will establish the AI marketplace for startups and assemble teams to compete in global AI competitions. The institute will collaborate with likeminded individuals and institutions across the continent to promote the development of an African AI ecosystem that takes into consideration the socio-economic context. The institute will also forge relations with BRICS.
According to Tshilidzi Marwala, professor and vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and deputy to President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “Involving youth in the development of technology will promote the advancement of skills and creation of job opportunities.” This is crucial given that a recent Stats SA report indicated that the youth unemployment rate in South Africa reached an all-time high of 59% in the first quarter of 2020.
“Tech startups are leading the way in the development of technology and need to play a key role in the AI ecosystem. The private sector and academia also need to work together and invest in research and development, as well as innovation institutes; while at the same time practising responsible use of AI and safeguarding the rights and wellbeing of all South Africans. As we begin to ponder a post-Corona world, this dialogue will be an important first step,” says Marwala.
The consortium will also establish a private sector-led AI research and development fund to provide grants for academia, startups, incubators and accelerators.
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