As South Africa steps into the world of artificial intelligence (AI), there’s a concerted effort by our government and several bodies within the ICT sector, to strike a balance between embracing the potential of AI and ensuring responsible practices.

By Ayavuya Jack, candidate attorney: corporate & commercial, and Kabelo Dlothi, director and co-head of corporate & commercial at CMS South Africa

As we explore the key developments shaping the AI landscape, we realise that many people are concerned about: transparency; justice and fairness; non-maleficence, or the ethical principle that requires actions that avoid or minimise harm to others; responsibility; and privacy.

Specific concerns for South Africa as far as the implementation of AI policies are concerned include: foreign data and models, data limitations, increased inequality, uninformed stakeholders, absence of policy and regulation.

It is vital to take a forward-thinking approach to adopting and deploying AI while ensuring that workers are equipped with a broad set of skills that enables them to adapt to an AI-driven economy, and that downside risks are mitigated.

There are potential steps for policymakers to consider in order to fully unlock AI’s economic potential in South Africa.

The South African government is taking concrete steps to understand and regulate AI. In November 2022, the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies (DCDT), formerly led by Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, launched the AI Institute of South Africa (AISA) to address and explore the legislative and regulatory aspects of AI.

This initiative aligns with the broader vision set by the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (PC4IR), a commission tasked with proposing the country’s overarching strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and currently chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The Department of Science and Innovation provides funding for AI research through programmes like the National Research Fund, Innovation Hubs. The IDC supports AI startups and SMEs through its Technology Innovation Fund, South African National Foundation Research Facility also funds AI research through its High-Performance Computing facility.

Instead of restating facts, a better angle for government would be how AI can assist South Africa’s energy battle and shaping a greener and more resilient future.

AISA, together with the PC4IR, will consider and make recommendations regarding the institutional frameworks and roles of various sectors of society in addition to reviewing and creating policies and legislation to empower stakeholders with responsible technology use. At this stage, we understand that the focus will be on data privacy and protection laws and digital taxation, with the aim of creating a science-literate judiciary.

Additionally, a new independent body, the South African Artificial Intelligence Association (SAAIA), has been formed and comprises several senior experts from the public and private sectors. SAAIA aims to ensure that AI benefits society and the economy in a responsible and inclusive manner.

AI is the most transformative tool of our era. Its applications are ubiquitous across all sectors, enhancing production and services like never before. AI might be poised to take over roles occupied by people, but the technology has the potential to enhance industry and address unemployment. It presents South Africa with the opportunity to re-skill the labour force for a digital future, whereby working collaboratively with machines will be the norm.

In 2021, South Africa, in collaboration with several member states within the African Union (AU), presented the “Smart Africa Alliance Artificial Intelligence Blueprint” (AI Blueprint). The AI Blueprint outlines the need for ethical considerations and policies for responsible AI adoption, and the introduction of regional Centres of Excellence for AI within the continent, specialising in different fields of AI, to optimise the economic development of individual member states.

In addition to this, the South African government, through the DCDT, is also actively developing an AI policy, and the PC4IR report, published in 2020, has served as the official guide for the incoming AI regulations. The establishment of the World Economic Forum AI Centre of Excellence in 2021 by the DCDT, and currently managed by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, further underscores South Africa’s commitment to navigating the AI landscape in a globally inclusive manner.

At this stage of its infancy, current legislation such as the Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013 (PoPIA) and the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, 2002 (ECTA), plays an important, albeit indirect role in overseeing the lawful use of AI in South Africa. PoPIA, for example, regulates data processing, with potential future adjustments to accommodate the evolving nature of AI. ECTA recognises contracts concluded by electronic agents, ensuring that transactions involving AI, like chatbots, are governed by existing legal frameworks.

One of the exciting frontiers for AI in South Africa is its application in the financial sector. Banks are leveraging AI and big data to offer personalised services. AI-powered chatbots, armed with Natural Language Processing, are enhancing customer interactions, making online banking more accessible, efficient, and convenient.

AI is also aiding in customer segmentation, credit assessments, and data analytics in the finance sector. These developments highlight the transformative potential of AI in enhancing services and decision-making processes. This manner of AI usage, however, will need to be carefully managed by organisations to mitigate potential litigious risks as it may give rise to potential biases.

In addition to the traditional finance sector, there has been a keen interest within the e-commerce sector to further integrate AI to enhance customer experience. CMS has recently advised a global social media platform in relation to the deployment of an AI tool in South Africa and we anticipate that many similar organisations will adopt the same approach, in the near future.

While South Africa is still navigating the specifics of AI regulations, the proactive steps taken by the government and the establishment of organisations like AISA and SAAIA reflect a commitment to responsible AI adoption. As the landscape evolves, South Africa is poised to unlock the benefits of AI in various sectors, promising a future where technology serves society responsibly and inclusively.