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South African youth feel ‘far removed’ from AI

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 21 Jun 2024
The National Youth ICT Council calls for reduced barriers to AI access for South African youth.
The National Youth ICT Council calls for reduced barriers to AI access for South African youth.

Local youth seem to experience a disconnect with artificial intelligence (AI), with some viewing it as a technology far removed from their lived experiences.

This is according to Aluwani Chokoe, spokesperson and head of policy, research and development at the National Youth ICT Council, calling on ICT sector stakeholders to ensure barriers to AI access are dismantled.

She was one of the keynote speakers at the Huawei ICT Editors Xchange 2024 event, which took place yesterday.

Chokoe pointed to language as one of the AI obstacles, saying this results in a lot of people being left behind.

“We speak about these terms in English. For example, when we’re in Ntabazwe in the Free State, where Sesotho is predominantly spoken, why are we not making a deliberate effort to ensure we break down this language barrier so that they engage in a language they best understand?”

Despite 90% of the internet being in English, data shows that only one in 10 South Africans speak English at home.

Responding to ITWeb’s questions about young people’s perception of AI, Chokoe said: “When we go to communities, the community members view some of these technological advancements as something they would not partake in. They are seen as something that is far away from an ordinary person in South Africa.

“We speak about AI and they think this is not something for them. Even when we tell them about robotics and coding, it’s seen as something that’s out of reach for them and something only the elite would have access to. This is why breaking down the language barrier would make it easier for them to participate in AI, robotics, automation and ICT as a whole.”

She warned that if AI access is not evenly distributed, it increased the risk of widening the digital divide. “Youth, particularly in South Africa, would face the brunt of being left behind by the rise of this revolution.

“Similarly, AI systems can raise ethical issues, including bias in algorithms…and privacy infringements as well. It is crucial that these concerns are addressed, to ensure AI development aligns with SA’s values and our legal standards.

“If opinion leaders can dismiss the myths and see AI as a tool whereby humanity stands to benefit, then a greater portion of society will leave behind their resistance and embrace this technology.”

Chokoe pointed out that the National Youth ICT Council has pronounced that SA should become a global source for tech talent, moving away from its spectator role.

And while challenges may exist, she emphasised the strategic integration of AI will ensure it benefits all segments of society and mitigates potential risks.

“For a country like SA – with a youthful demographic – AI should be leveraged to address significant socio-economic challenges, such as unemployment, skills gaps and inequality.

“AI has the ability to stimulate economic growth by increasing productivity, fostering new business models and creating high-value jobs.

“Sectors like finance, retail and telecommunications can benefit from AI through automation and improved decision-making processes. For the youth, this translates into opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment in emerging AI-driven industries.

“Engaging young people in AI development and deployment is crucial for sustainable growth.

“We also advocate for tax incentives and grants to businesses that invest in AI research and development, particularly those that create jobs for young people.”

Aluwani Chokoe, spokesperson and head of policy, research and development at the National Youth ICT Council.
Aluwani Chokoe, spokesperson and head of policy, research and development at the National Youth ICT Council.

The council is a youth-governed, non-profit organisation that seeks to drive inclusive digital transformation and advocate for youth economic participation. It has forged partnerships with some government entities and private sector firms to drive its mission.

Among its functions is facilitating digital skills training and education programmes in various communities across the country.

The council also hosts hackathons in provinces across the country, including one held recently in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) that looked at the transportation and logistics industry.

According to Chokoe, the hackathons aim to give local youth an opportunity to showcase their innovations and robotics skills, to address particular societal problems. In the case of the KZN hackathon, it was informed by the recurring truck accidents along the N3 routes.

“We took the potential factors that may be behind the truck accidents and tried to come up with technological solutions and systems that can help mitigate some of these challenges.”

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