A few years ago, the Stanford-based Chinese-American professor of computer science and expert in visual object recognition AI, Fei-Fei Li, noted the importance of vision in human evolution, both in prehistoric times and in the 21st century.
She put it this way: “More than 500 million years ago, vision became the primary driving force of evolution’s ‘big bang’, the Cambrian Explosion, which resulted in explosive speciation of the animal kingdom. 500 million years later, artificial intelligence (AI) technology is at the verge of changing the landscape of how humans live, work, communicate, and shape our environment.”
This prophecy has come to light. AI has become the “vision” that is propelling human evolution to the next level. Essentially, Li argued that intelligent technology, or the ability of computers to mimic human intelligence, is the key enabling technology for advancement.
By extension, we would like to argue that the establishment of the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa (AIISA) provides the very “vision” that the country needs if it is to meaningfully navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed that the 4IR, characterised by intelligent technology, is upon us – and we need it now more than any time before. Undergirded by AI, the technologies of the 4IR have markedly changed our world, transformed society and even made us re-evaluate how we interact. It is a shift we cannot ignore, and we have had to find ways to respond.
In his 2016 seminal work, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab, reflecting on the overarching shifts that would come, suggested that “shared understanding is particularly critical if we are to shape a collective future that reflects common objectives and values”.The launch of the Artificial Intelligence Hub on Friday, 24 March at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) was an important signal of South Africa’s clear intentions not to be left behind amid the explosion of AI technologies across the world. The launch marked the continuation of an important chapter and a deeper entrenchment of a shared commitment to the 4IR between TUT, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT).
At the end of November 2022, our three entities established the AIISA, embedded within the state but in collaboration with institutions of higher learning, in line with the key recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the 4IR. With more than 100,000 students between the two institutions, and as leaders in introducing 4IR in higher education nationally and beyond, TUT and UJ are well placed to take the lead in establishing the AIISA.
Together with the DCDT, the two institutions have embarked on various 4IR initiatives in recent years. In this way, UJ and TUT have established themselves as thought leaders in 4IR research, innovation and teaching. With students from all over the continent and several collaborative agreements with international institutions, the collective dominance of these institutions in this space reaches far beyond South Africa’s borders to Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Prof Tinyiko Maluleke and Prof Letlhokwa Mpedi.
Key to the mandate of AIISA is research and development with a special focus on the deployment of AI technologies in specific public and private sectors and industries. The inclusion of training in the AIISA mandate will bolster the investment in human capital. As a result, the AI institute is envisioned as the engine that will drive the country’s AI capabilities and applications across sectors and deal with arising ethical issues.
Ultimately, the goal is to link up with AI centres across the continent and in that way participate in the invigoration and expansion of AI expertise across the continent. Guided by the DCDT, TUT and UJ will use this institution to map the terrain, shape the discourse and activate the fundamental building blocks around AI.
The TUT AI Hub in particular will focus on developing AI technologies in the motor industry, farming and food production, manufacturing, tourism, transport, health and telecommunications. These focus areas hold much economic promise for South Africa, which is grappling with economic difficulties.
Last week, the International Monetary Fund warned that South Africa’s growth is set to plunge this year due to power cuts and that our economy risks stagnation. It said: “South Africa’s economic and social challenges are mounting, risking stagnation amid an unprecedented energy crisis, increasingly binding infrastructure and logistics bottlenecks.”
This is another blow to our battered economy following an alarming economic performance in 2022. South Africa’s economy shrank by 1.3% in the fourth quarter, the largest contraction since the third quarter of 2021, when riots took hold in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, causing massive economic disruption.
As the numbers indicate, seven of our 10 industries contracted. More distressingly, data indicate that since the advent of democracy, South Africa’s GDP growth rate has only averaged 0.61%.
Navigating a new world
We are a country crying out for solutions. According to the 2022 World Competitiveness Yearbook by the Swiss-based Institute of Management Development, South Africa’s global competitiveness has been negatively affected by a slew of factors: high unemployment, particularly among the young; a shrinking fiscal space; ongoing electricity supply problems and rolling blackouts; and lack of decisive plans to address socioeconomic challenges.
As we navigate a post-pandemic world, seek to rebuild our economy and participate proactively in the 4IR revolution, the institute will play a pivotal role. As President Cyril Ramaphosa put it at the start of his presidency: “We were left behind by the First Industrial Revolution, the second and so forth, but the fourth one is not going to leave us behind – we are going to get ahead of that Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
Through the establishment of the AIISA, South Africa is signalling to the world that it will not be a bystander, a consumer or a mere supplier of “raw material” to other actors in the 4IR era. The establishment of the institute is the strongest indication that the country intends to take charge and shape its digital identity and destiny.
Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Tshwane University of Technology.
Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.