Govt, academia unite to create innovative AI ecosystem

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 01 Dec 2022
Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.
Communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.

South Africa has joined its African counterparts, such as Ghana, to set up an institute dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI).

Yesterday, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, in partnership with the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), officially launched the AI Institute of South Africa, as well as the UJ and TUT AI hubs.

The launch also signalled the realisation of one of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that South Africa establish an AI institute, to catapult the country’s digital future.

Furthermore, it is expected to serve as a common base for knowledge generation, research and development, as well as implementation capabilities of AI applications for areas such as health, agriculture, finance, mining, manufacturing and government.

For communications and digital technologies minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, the AI institute presents an opportunity to reskill the labour force for digital transformation.

Ntshavheni emphasised the institute must also focus on ideation and experimentation, so that the technologies developed are commercialised

“I’m pleased that within a short period of the finalisation of the report of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which crafted South Africa’s roadmap to exploit opportunities offered by the new economy, we launch the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa.

“The objectives of the institute are designed to ensure we do not compete as countries, universities, research institutions and businesses. Rather, we work together in a unique partnership to apply our collective knowledge, expertise and experience to implement coordinated solutions of some of Africa’s most critical and long-standing challenges.”

Housed inside UJ’s Johannesburg Business School, the institute is made up of two hubs: one at UJ and the TUT hub that will be launched early next year. The hubs will focus on their specific areas of expertise.

For example, Ntshavheni said UJ will focus on industries such as the value chain of manufacturing, retail, fintech, digital mining, the energy sector, digital banking and identity, as well as the criminal justice system.

TUT, on the other hand, will focus on AI for the automotive, manufacturing, tourism, farming and healthcare sectors, to name a few.

“This is the first phase of many phases to come, where UJ and TUT will serve as AI hubs that feed into the AI institute located at the Johannesburg Business School.

“The ultimate goal of the institute is the creation of a network of AI hubs linked to key catalytic projects across the country, and centres of excellence across SADC and the continent that have specific focus areas, to ensure no single region in Africa is left behind.”

UJ and TUT, which are co-founder institutions of the AI institute, host the largest student population in SA from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, according Ntshavheni.

“The multiplying effect of what we are doing with this institute is impactful in terms of those who are going to immediately benefit and the communities that will directly benefit.

“Importantly, we are also saying institutions of higher learning can no longer teach and produce content for their own gratification. It’s no longer about the amount of research work produced per year, it is the impact of that research – how much of it makes social impact in our communities.”

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, outgoing principal and vice-chancellor of UJ – the deputy chair of the presidential commission – explained the establishment of the AI institute sat at the heart of the 4IR commission’s strategy.

This, according to Marwala, was so that South Africa isn’t just an object of the digital industrial revolution, like the first, second and third revolutions.

“We cannot afford to be objects of the fourth industrial revolution − we have to become its subjects; meaning that we have to embrace technology as a motivating force for transformation of our society, to tackle the problems of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

“Artificial intelligence is the bedrock of the fourth industrial revolution and underpins the growing connections in cyber, physical and biological systems.”

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, outgoing principal and vice-chancellor of UJ and deputy chair of the presidential commission.
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, outgoing principal and vice-chancellor of UJ and deputy chair of the presidential commission.

Marwala indicated the institute will bolster investment in human capital. “The AI institute is envisioned as a vessel responsible for the country’s AI capabilities and applications across sectors, and will deal with arising ethical issues but will not replace the role of the universities in carrying out basic research on these issues.”

Explaining the significance of a locally-based AI institute, Marwala stated it should help to indigenise technology, to drive inclusion, employment, efficiency and modernise productive forces.

“The AI institute must be a conduit for AI knowledge to industry, society and government. It should also facilitate the expansion of AI expertise across the continent by drawing from both the local population and international expertise.

“Innovation should become the DNA of this AI institute.”

He added that the emphasis should be on empowering the youth and ensuring they are armed with training, skills and formal education to succeed in the fourth industrial revolution.

“It is not only about our students, but also about the people who are already in the workforce who did not receive education that capacitates them to be able to operate efficiently in the era in which we live.”