SA stands to benefit economically from AI adoption

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 15 Sept 2023
The lack of national AI strategy could see SA lose out on the associated economic benefits.
The lack of national AI strategy could see SA lose out on the associated economic benefits.

As South Africa drags its feet on the introduction of a national artificial intelligence (AI) strategy, the country faces the threat of missing out on the many economic opportunities presented by AI-driven governance.

This was the word from professorRandall Carolissen, dean of the Johannesburg Business School, speaking at a Google Africa Internet Academy event.

Organised by the Centre for Data and Digital Communications and the AI Hub, the event was held this week at the University of Johannesburg.

Discussing the role of AI in generating opportunities for public sector organisations across the globe, Carolissen noted SA and the rest of Africa have many lessons to learn from countries such as the US, Singapore and the UK, which are at the forefront of establishing and implementing national AI strategies.

“When AI is used adequately, it has the potential to bridge the digital and economic divide in SA. Developing an AI strategy can also assist with meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

“If South Africa adopts AI, wecould stand to benefit massively from economic growth in the country. In the US, AI is expected to contribute an additional 4.6% to economic growth by 2035. So, they are really taking AI quite seriously.”

Governments around the world are reaping rewards from AI-embedded public services, AI skills development initiatives and the use of predictive analytics in decision-making processes, he noted.

According to PwC, by 2030, AI will contribute $15.7 trillion to the global economy, driven by advances in data storage, computer processing power and connectivity.

Professor Randall Carolissen, dean of the UJ’s Johannesburg Business School.
Professor Randall Carolissen, dean of the UJ’s Johannesburg Business School.

Referencing the Government AI Readiness Index 2022, compiled by Oxford Insights, Carolissen pointed out that national AI strategy implementation initiatives across the globe are dominated by middle-income countries.

The index tracks governments’ development and challenges surrounding the implementation of national AI strategies, focusing on nine regions globally, with input from local experts.

According to the index, Africa has the lowest ranking, sitting on 29.4 points, while SA ranks 68 out of 181 countries, he added.

“In the index, we are over-represented at the bottom of the spectrum and there remains many barriers to progress in Africa. This includes broadband access, which is still not widespread, and the majority of internet users still rely on mobile internet due to, in part, the high costs of connectivity. The high level of inequality hinders development of AI-based technologies, even among those who are able to access them.”

In 2018, Mauritius became the first African country to publish a national AI strategy. Several years later, Egypt and Kenya launched their national AI strategies. Rwanda, Benin and Ghana are in the process of implementation.

Despite lagging behind in the drafting of a national AI strategy, SA’s private sector is showing pockets of innovative AI deployments, he continued.

SA is also establishing an AI Institute to amplify teaching of robotics and coding in public schools.

Meanwhile, the country has made remarkable progress in other areas of innovation. These include deployment of commercial cloud solutions, 5G infrastructure, telecommunications regulations and data protection regulations, such as the Protection of Personal Information Act, asserted Carolissen.

“The main hindrance in the development of the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa remains funds – we need R2.6 trillion investment in education, health and roads, among other things, and yet we are faced with increasing debt. The debt profile of Africa is horrendous,” he concluded.