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ITWeb TV: Open-source AI: Unlocking potential for South Africa's SMEs

Lungile Msomi
By Lungile Msomi, ITWeb journalist
Johannesburg, 09 Feb 2024
ITWeb’s Lungile Msomi talks to African Academy of Artificial Intelligence co-founders, Greg Serandos and Quinton Jacobs, about business adoption of AI, the drive for relevant skills and how South Africa can leverage the technology for competitive advantage on the continent. #itwebtv #ai #opensource

While artificial intelligence (AI) holds the potential to address challenges and unlock new opportunities for South Africa, concerns about accessibility, affordability, and responsible development linger. However, open-source could be the key to unlocking AI’s true potential for the country, so say Greg Serandos and Quinton Jacobs, co-founders of the African Academy of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI).

In the latest episode of ITWeb TV, the pair outline how open-source AI models, such as PyTorch, TensorFlow, Keras, and OpenAI, eliminate significant cost barriers, empower individuals and organisations, and can foster innovation and problem-solving.

Serandos says that by embracing open source, South Africa has a potential opportunity to lead AI innovation in Africa. He explains that with challenges like limited funding, lack of proper infrastructure, and competition from bigger companies hindering their growth and sustainability, AI can be a catalyst for small businesses, offering agility and improved productivity, even with limited financial resources.

“If you're competing against a Google or a Microsoft or one of the big companies, it's tough but the opportunity for entry is really for those small companies to develop niche applications and leverage the large language models. Not everybody has to develop a large language model,” says Serandos.

Jacobs, head of training at AAAI, urges small businesses to integrate AI technology early, for efficiency gains and competitive advantage. Beyond basic functionality, such as offering chatbots for customer service, some examples Jacobs gives for SMEs being able to use AI include assistance with creating social media posts and boosting employee productivity.

“We often say AI is not going to replace your job or replace you, but people who learn AI faster than you do are going to replace you,” adds Jacobs.

The AAAI, in partnership with Gibs Business School, provides AI training programmes for businesses, ranging from SMEs to corporates.

Regarding company attitudes about what AI can bring and where it fits, Jacobs says: “I think there's both acceptance and scepticism. In certain areas and certain niches, there's a quick adoption where the advantages are obvious, especially in the marketing field.

“But some of the more advanced functionalities of AI, for instance, analytics or research, people are a little bit more hesitant to get into it.”

Overcoming hurdles

In a landscape where data privacy is a major concern, Serandos suggests that slow and weak regulations over new technologies, like AI, might favour small businesses and innovators. He argues that, unlike large corporations, SMEs face fewer consequences for privacy violations.

“Having regulations like POPIA won’t help once we build our own AI tools, because the market will decide. If I have a small business, we’re not going to violate people’s privacy, but if we did there would be little to no ramifications to doing so. There are only consequences if you're a large corporation or if you're the government,” says Serandos.

ITWeb’s Lungile Msomi sits down with co-founders of the AAAI, Greg Serandos and Quinton Jacobs to discuss South Africa’s AI future.
ITWeb’s Lungile Msomi sits down with co-founders of the AAAI, Greg Serandos and Quinton Jacobs to discuss South Africa’s AI future.

Jacobs agrees that AI is well suited to smaller players and, leveraged effectively, could create both commercial and societal impact.

“We've been saying for years that it's the entrepreneurs and small businesses that are going to change South Africa. It's not going to come from the government or from large businesses. And this is what AI is all about, empowering people to do things better and to produce more quality work,” says Jacobs.

And for individuals seeking career development, Serandos highlights the global employment possibilities AI offers skilled South Africans.

“There's a lot of opportunities for people that skill up; they can have options and not just work for one of the four banks. (Internationally) South African labour is cheaper, but you get paid much more than you would be paid by a local company. So, I think that's another big opportunity if we think about employment and about creating better lives for South African citizens, employees, I think that's a golden egg,” says Serandos.