Generative AI to supercharge four key sectors in SA

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 29 Sept 2023
The barriers to using AI have begun to fall, says Boston Consulting Group.
The barriers to using AI have begun to fall, says Boston Consulting Group.

While generative artificial intelligence (AI) is still in its early stages, it’s expected to become a transformative technology in SA, with its benefits to be felt across the healthcare, education, financial and agricultural sectors.

However, many of the risks implicit in AI will prove to be difficult to mitigate, let alone eradicate.

This is according to a newly-released report detailing the societal benefits of AI and generative AI for SA, conducted by global consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG), in partnership with Microsoft SA and Wits Business School.

The report − “South Africa: The potential impact of AI and generative AI” − notes generative AI is maturing fast, and looks set to become one of the most important technologies of our time – having already attracted strong interest and substantial investments across the globe.

The launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT language model-based chatbot last year brought to public attention the power of generative AI technology, with new use cases emerging daily.

The report identifies a number of ways in which AI could make a transformative contribution to easing SA’s societal difficulties. However, it cautions, while AI creates a new class of opportunities, it also introduces a new class of risks.

These risks include many publicised threats, such as inaccuracies, compliance violations, representation biases, breach of contract and copyright infringement.

Given that AI is still maturing, the research points out some new and unforeseen risks will emerge, noting constant vigilance and evaluation of risks are therefore crucial as the technology progresses.

Nihmal Marrie, MD and partner at BCG and report co-author, says for AI to achieve scalable adoption and realise its full potential in SA, several indispensable elements will need to be in place. These include appropriate laws and regulation, people and workface enablement, financial underpinning, collaboration, technological infrastructure and public-private partnerships.

“AI provides many benefits to businesses, governments and individuals, but there are also associated risks that we cannot ignore. AI development should take place within an appropriate legal and regulatory framework, to define standards, priorities and ethical boundaries, and also to support the growth of AI adoption and mitigate AI risks,” asserts Marrie.

“If the use of AI tools is not explicitly regulated, and the personal information of data subjects is processed without their knowledge or consent, this could place an organisation or business in breach of its obligations under the Protection of Personal Information Act. The issues raised and the possible consequences would then need to be addressed by appropriate policymakers.”

Nihmal Marrie, MD and partner at BCG and report co-author.
Nihmal Marrie, MD and partner at BCG and report co-author.

It is estimated generative AI will be a $60 billion global market by 2025, accounting for 30% of the total addressable market for AI in general, according to BCG.

Ayanda Ngcebetsha, director of data and AI commercial solutions at Microsoft South Africa, comments: “We believe that when you create technologies that can change the world, you must also ensure they are used responsibly.

“When we apply principles like transparency, fairness and accountability, a balance between extracting value from AI, and ensuring data protection, ethical usage and compliance can be created.”

To achieve scalable and affordable adoption of AI technologies, the report says local policymakers and stakeholders need to create a framework for responsible AI practices.

“These include financial and regulatory support, upgraded technology infrastructure and public-private collaboration,” notes Ngcebetsha.

The “open-source AI boom” driven by big tech companies like Google, Meta and Microsoft has fuelled innovation by making the code behind generative models easily accessible, notes the report.

Over the past few years, the barriers to using AI have begun to fall, as the necessary tools and platforms have increasingly become accessible to ordinary citizens. In the new era, there is no longer the need for vast datasets or powerful computers, since much of what’s necessary is now available through cloud providers, the study points out.

By 2025, generative AI will be a $60 billion global market, says Boston Consulting Group.
By 2025, generative AI will be a $60 billion global market, says Boston Consulting Group.

It highlights the ways in which generative AI, together with AI more broadly, can address some of SA’s most pressing challenges, and discusses how AI can be responsibly harnessed to transform the lives of South African citizens. It states the healthcare, education, financial and agriculture industries are expected to benefit the most.

In SA’s healthcare sector, it notes, generative AI can assist by supporting personalised diagnosis and treatment recommendations for patients. It can free up administrative time for doctors and nurses by transcribing and summarising consultations and automatically updating patient files, or serving as a 24/7 health-education resource and providing regular advice in various languages.

“Generative AI can expand financial inclusion by supporting under-banked people through a conversational chatbot and expedite the drafting of legal documents. Furthermore, AI enables engagement with clients in their native languages, helping them gain access to essential financial literacy and services,” adds Marrie.

The benefits of generative AI in providing access to quality education is a game-changer, according to the report. “Through natural language processing, AI-powered tutors can assist learners with better access to resources by making sense of their questions and navigating intricate knowledge repositories to find the relevant information, mitigating teacher shortages, especially in public schools.

“By analysing vast amounts of data, AI can inform policy decisions and syllabus design, and create learning materials. The new content can be tailored to various grade levels and to individual students, and can be presented in the student’s preferred language.”

Agriculture, a pivotal industry that contributes to GDP and exports in SA, can largely benefit from refined credit scoring to expand financial access for smallholder farmers, notes the report.

“By integrating field data obtained from satellites, weather stations and internet of things devices, AI can develop algorithms that analyse factors such as crop health, soil quality and weather patterns in real-time.

“The consequent insights, combined with traditional financial data and predictive analytics, help to create a comprehensive credit profile for farmers who lack a conventional credit history. That could enable financial institutions to make more informed lending decisions.

“It also supports financial inclusion, empowering farmers to invest in their operations, adopt modern agricultural practices and improve their livelihoods.”