Artificial intelligence will transform how the world lives and works and recent announcements by Google have shown just how powerful AI can become. The change is inevitable – but what steps do countries need to take today to ready themselves for an AI-driven future? And is South Africa prepared?
A recent industry-focused AI summit held at the White House put a spotlight on the debate. The event was attended by more than 100 senior government officials, technical experts, business leaders and heads of industrial research labs. At the core of the summit: the US government’s focus on leveraging AI for the benefit of US workers and removing barriers to innovation. With it came an awareness of what achieving that goal will require – including the skills people will need to make the most of the new world of work.
“AI and related technologies are creating new types of jobs and demand for new technical skills across industries,” noted a release issued by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “At the same time, many existing occupations will significantly change or become obsolete. Attendees discussed … a renewed focus on STEM education throughout childhood and beyond, to technical apprenticeships, reskilling, and lifelong learning programs to better match America’s skills with the needs of industry.”
The question remains: how are we faring at home here in South Africa?
“If South Africa embraces AI, we can create jobs, grow the economy and improve productivity. All very relevant given our current economic climate,” says Rory Moore, Innovation Lead for Accenture in South Africa, emphasising the importance of government’s role in enabling AI as a catalyst for growth. “AI can open up opportunities to create new value, reinforcing how people drive growth in business,” Moore notes. “It can also help people be more productive – by some estimates, leading to a 40% increase in labour productivity by 2035.”
Yet change isn’t far off. According to 2017 research conducted by Accenture, in five years’ time, more than half of consumers and enterprise clients will select products and services based on a company’s AI, instead of the company’s more traditional “brand”. In seven years’ time, most interfaces will not have a screen and will be integrated into daily tasks.
According to Karthik Venkataraman, Head of Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Automation at Accenture Technology, “South African companies need to shape their own journeys towards becoming responsible users and creators of AI. This will require an understanding of our unique business and economic environments, as well as finding relevant partner for this endeavour.”
In South Africa, Accenture research found that some 78% of local executives say they need to boost their organisation’s competitiveness by innovating through investments in AI technologies. However, only about a third of these organisations are planning significant AI investments over the next three years.
Obstacles remain to AI uptake in South Africa. On one hand, companies are often weighed down by legacy infrastructure, technologies, systems, business models and outdated corporate structuring. At the same time, our workforce is not yet ready for the AI revolution already underway in other parts of the world. Indeed, like workers in many countries elsewhere, South Africans are concerned that AI may affect their jobs and even worsen income inequality. Further issues relate to the quality of education in South Africa (from primary to university levels), the capabilities of our scientific research institutions, as well the quality of our national innovation ecosystems and our lack of a national collaborative mindset.
A July 2017 AI roundtable hosted by Accenture and GIBS Business School revealed both concerns and possible solutions. Rather than replacing humans, it was argued, AI should be harnessed to increase workers’ productivity, with organisations focusing on reskilling their workforces and ensuring inclusive economic growth remains the ultimate goal.
Given that AI has the potential to see certain jobs automated – potentially worsening inequality and eroding incomes for some parts of the population for a period – the imperative for responsible AI, and for policymakers to proactively address and pre-empt its downsides is real. Among the critical issues: identifying the groups most at risk of job displacement and creating strategies that focus on reskilling and retraining people so they can be successfully reintegrated into an AI-driven economy. Sound rules, regulations, governance guardrails and economic policies will also play critical enabling and protective roles.
At the core, the most significant challenges to the adoption of AI are no different in South Africa than anywhere else. They are about preparing people for the intellectual, technological, political, ethical and social questions that will arise as AI becomes more deeply integrated into our lives.
To prepare South Africa – and South African companies – for what’s to come, policymakers must clear the path and help prepare the next generation accordingly. More than this, a strong code of ethics will be needed to make sure growth is inclusive; infrastructure barriers must be removed and a collaborative ecosystem put in place to support AI development. South Africa must start building the competencies it needs to participate in an AI-driven future today.