SA organisations commit to responsible use of AI

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South African organisations yesterday committed to being responsible in their use of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

Stakeholders yesterday participated in a virtual event – AI Dialogue South Africa – which culminated in the signing of the expression of interest (EOI) that advocates for responsible AI.

The AI Dialogue South Africa is spearheaded by Convergence Partners, Accenture, University of Johannesburg, Digital Council Africa and Sun & Shield Technologies.

In a statement, the organisations say much like a microcosm of our socio-economic context, the AI landscape in SA is uneven and burdened with regulatory challenges.

They add that if not addressed, these challenges could give more power to those who already control AI systems, evoking concerns about power dynamics and how the role of humans will be redefined.

According to the organisations, the coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into the deep end, necessitating a swifter move towards a digitally transformed society.

It is against this backdrop that businesses, academia, civil societies, human rights activists, labour movements, non-profit organisations, SMMEs, the legal fraternity, women and youth organisations signed the EOI.

The EOI provides a platform for cooperation and leverages the collective strengths, insights, knowledge and thought leadership of multiple stakeholders for the realisation of AI benefits.

It will promote the responsible use of AI and establish an ethical framework with regulation and standards in mind, while allaying many of the fears associated with the technology.

“The past few weeks have shown how AI is at risk of being biased and manipulated,” says Andile Ngcaba, chairman of Convergence Partners. “Facial recognition has come under fire recently for mass surveillance, racial profiling and violations of basic human rights.

“These inherent personal and environmental biases need discussion and options need to be considered. We need to build our own AI ontology and vocabulary that will take into consideration SA’s constitution, legacy, history, culture, diversity and languages.”

The AI Dialogue South Africa transdisciplinary initiative intends to initiate a dialogue, consult widely, engage stakeholders, identify gaps and potential solutions in respect of AI in the South African context.

It also seeks to develop AI public-private collaboration framework within appropriate bounds to guide initiatives going forward; craft an inclusive human-centred and context-based AI approach to benefit South African society; and assist the South African National Data Strategy by allowing for discussions around the protection of privacy, promotion of data security and open data-enabled innovation.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and deputy to president Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the fourth industrial revolution, says: “Involving youth in the development of technology will promote the advancement of skills and creation of job opportunities.”

He says this is crucial given that a recent Stats SA report indicated that the youth unemployment rate in South Africa reached an all-time high of 59% in the first quarter of 2020.

“Tech start-ups are leading the way in the development of technology and need to play a key role in the AI ecosystem,” Marwala says.

“The private sector and academia also need to work together and invest in research and development, as well as innovation institutes; while at the same time practising responsible use of AI and safeguarding the rights and well-being of all South Africans. As we begin to ponder a post-corona world, this dialogue will be an important first step.”

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