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Africa must regulate AI to reap its full benefits

Lungile Msomi
By Lungile Msomi, ITWeb journalist
Johannesburg, 08 May 2023

Artificial intelligence (AI) regulation is needed to help Africa improve healthcare and eradicate many of its socio-economic challenges.

This is according to experts participating in a panel discussion, titled: “Navigating the future of AI: How to respond to the impact of ChatGPT and generative AI across industries”, during the Africa Tech Week Conference, in Cape Town, last week.

The discussion focused on how new technologies, such as ChatGPT in the AI space, can lead to economic upliftment, through innovation and creativity in Africa. They emphasised the important role of regulation in the application of the tech and who is developing it.

Launched by OpenAI in November, text-based ChatGPT has the ability to interact in conversational dialogue form and provide responses that can appear human. It can also draft prose, poetry or even computer code on command.

Ayanda Ngcebetsha, data and AI director at Microsoft, told the audience that Africans need to recognise AI is here to enhance and help them generate new content.

The regulation of AI is going to be possible if human augmentation is used, to make sure people work with the machine to create new models, she noted.

“Think of the generative AI model in the hands of a clinical professional. Giving the machine problem-solving skills will help accelerate the provision of clinical expertise for a patient. This is one of many points made by experts to show how this new tech can help Africa reach its full potential,” noted Ngcebetsha.

The experts said regulation of the application of AI is the best route to take if industries are to derive true value from the emerging tech. This would be particularly beneficial in proactive engagements, like enhancing current intellectual property and content laws – making it easier for organisations to adhere to compliance requirements.

While such emerging technologies are expected to unlock infinite business opportunities across sectors, gaining in-depth understanding of the data privacy implications is an important step to the regulation of technologies such as ChatGPT and other AI-based technologies, they added.

The regulation of ChatGPT has been in the spotlight since March, when Italy became the first country to ban it, saying the chatbot unlawfully collects personal data – breaching the country’s data privacy rules.

South Africa’s Information Regulator says it is holding internal discussions on how to approach the regulation of ChatGPT and other AI technologies, to ensure they don’t violate data privacy laws.

Responsible AI

Also speaking during the Africa Tech Week discussion, Lavina Ramkissoon, AI ethics and technology policy expert at the African Union, pointed out there is nothing wrong with a limited level of bias in the AI machine. The idea of perfection is something we will never get to, and we should not want to get to.

“If we as humans are creating AI to be the next upgrade to humanity or be human-like, then it makes no sense to completely eradicate the bias,” said Ramkissoon.

A combination of regulation, digital rights and a consistent framework to ensure consent is present when uploading information on AI applications is necessary, she added.

“In Nigeria, there was an update to the IP law about four years ago, to include emerging tech like AI and blockchain. Those are the kinds of proactive engagements that need to happen in other countries, from a regulatory perspective. From a digital citizen perspective, there is a lot of awareness and education that needs to happen in this space.”

Professor Arthur Mutambara, executive director at the institute for the future of knowledge at the University of Johannesburg, said there should be more diversity in the development of AI.

“Let us experiment with more women, more young people, more black people and more Africans. If we don’t do that, there will be definite bias and discrimination in the products and the application of AI.

“We have a duty as regulators, government and the private sector to make sure we are not just users, but also participants in the construction of these machines,” explained Mutambara.

AI regulation will assist in closing the gaps previously created by the emergence of new tech between Africa and the rest of the world, he added.

The experts discussed the many positives that come with AI, such as helping the ordinary digital citizen navigate the world of tech, solve issues surrounding healthcare, address social issues such as global warming, and create new and better jobs.

Although the benefits of AI are endless, regulations must be in place to ensure there is no bias, discrimination and marginalisation towards African citizens who are not yet in the digital space.

The experts noted that responsible AI and the composition of teams that build the systems are important factors to consider.

Keneilwe Gwabeni, CIO of Telkom consumer and small business, said the South African government has to invest more in the regulation of AI as a whole. “Government, the private sector and citizens must work together to make AI work for us. We have to make sure we are active players, and collaborate and drive African stories and experiences into the technology that we build.”