Taking responsibility for using AI for good in Africa


AI’s great potential demands even greater responsibility.

By Ziaad Suleman, chairman of the BRICS Business Council: 4IR and digital economy working group and EOH’s group chief commercial officer

Artificial intelligence (AI) is enriching various aspects of our business and private lives: it drives the business strategies, operations and marketing activities of our enterprises and illuminates our personal searches for trips to take and series to stream.

It is one of the technology trends that will take off in 2023 as businesses are set to adopt it more widely to streamline their activities and boost their bottom lines. For this reason, we must take a closer look at the capabilities of the technology and how to use it for the greater good of our economy and society.

We often talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). This is a term that is used loosely but refers to a complex phenomenon – the convergence of many technologies that hold tremendous insight and benefits for us all. It includes such things as AI, the cloud, security, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, automation and blockchain and so many more. These technologies provide us with enhanced offerings and solutions, whether as a consumer, an enterprise or society as a whole. The advantages are manifold and transcend all boundaries, truly making the world a global village.

When we merge the masses of data we derive from multiple sources such as mobile, email, social channels, workloads and sensor technology, we have the convergence of a plethora of data. However, without deep learning, machine learning and other forms of AI, it is humanly impossible and impractical to break down and digest this data and turn it into valuable information.

We certainly face this challenge already today, while we will collect a much larger amount of data in future. Given the rate at which AI is developing, we will no doubt require the processing capability of quantum computing, which underlines the importance of 4IR technology and the tremendous benefits of AI. The solution sets we develop need to combine the components of 4IR with the key elements of AI, such as natural language processing, expert systems, robotics, intelligent agents and computational intelligence.

I agree with many who believe that Africa is the next frontier of economic growth. We need AI to leverage this opportunity to connect with and serve the multitude of people on the continent, both urban and rural. The following statistics illustrate this:

  • A McKinsey survey in 2021 found that 56 percent of companies have adopted AI in at least one function within their organisation.
  • A PwC report this year found that 96 percent of business respondents intend to use AI simulations like digital twins. Simulations are a very popular application of AI, as they can speed up risk analysis, provide insights, predict supply chain dynamics, and perform other important functions.

From a BRICS perspective, China is one of the global leaders in AI in the areas of technological development and market applications. Africa and South Africa’s ongoing engagement with other BRICS countries is leading to more learning, collaboration, innovation and trading opportunities. In Africa, we are seeing more SMMEs emerging and more investment going into SMMEs and startups in the tech world to solve daily challenges and better society.

I passionately believe that if we continue to increase the deployment of AI, we can derive benefits in the following areas:

  • processes such as planning, problem-solving and reasoning
  • productivity, achieving an increase of at least 40 percent, which would allow people to spend their time more effectively
  • education and learning, including automatic marking of scripts and online learning to teach digital skills at scale, which will lead to the creation of economic opportunity with more people having purpose and meaningfully contributing to the economy
  • security, such as cameras and voice-layered analytics
  • pharmaceutical and medical: for example, delivery of medical supplies (blood or other) using drone technology and improved patient care because doctors are able to spend more time with patients
  • agriculture: for example, farmers using data about weather patterns to make informed decisions
  • cybersecurity
  • manufacturing and automation
  • tourism: for example, using AI in marketing and managing fluctuating rates based on demand
    e-commerce (a large economic growth sphere), particularly in online shopping, customer services and customer experience
  • revenue generation
  • risk management
  • sentiment analysis.

Responsible use of AI

Another trend which is emerging in Africa is low-code or no-code AI that allows for the democratisation of AI and data technology. This means that people can customise AI with only written or voice instructions that don’t require complex technical knowledge.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has claimed that AI will be more transformative for humanity than electricity and fire. If this is the case, as I certainly believe it will be, deriving benefit from AI comes with responsibility like other advantages that we enjoy in life. We particularly need to ensure that the AI we develop does not hold prejudicial bias. The AI we use and rely on must be founded on integrity.

In Africa, there is a dichotomy between developing and frontier (pre-emerging) countries, developing and frontier markets. There are also different categories of enterprises and contrasts in society. The culturally diverse landscape demands that AI needs to be interpreted to deliver fair and unbiased outcomes. There are also concerns over data privacy and a need to ensure that developers of AI respect fundamental human rights.

An appreciation of these challenges is becoming more and more prevalent as many businesses have acknowledged the social risks posed by AI and are looking to mitigate them by designing technology that is aligned with equitable values, including fairness, explainability, privacy and beneficence. In this way, companies can use AI systems to make progress toward social goals while also mitigating harms that could impact the social elements of environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations.

The benefits of data analytics and AI are undeniable, and Africa can continue to benefit from these developments. AI has the potential to address a range of social problems, including sustainability. The climate crisis and the degradation of the physical environment are complex problems that require the most innovative and advanced solutions at our disposal. The real value of AI therefore lies in its ability to facilitate and foster better environmental and social governance, rather than merely being a tool to reduce pollution, poverty and resource depletion.

As AI permeates our lives more and more, these are some of the issues that we need to grapple with:

  • The ESG mandate, which presents many challenges as the topic is broad and complex with many competing frameworks and a lack of regulation.
  • The need for an increased focus on ethical and responsible use of AI and how to mitigate bias (particularly gender and racial bias).
  • The ethical and responsible use of personal data.
  • Energy efficiency as deep learning models consume large amounts of energy.
  • A holistic approach to governance that includes processes, policies, regulations and standards.

We certainly cannot allow machines learning from data to operate in a completely unsupervised vacuum. Man and machine must work in harmony, with humans taking responsibility for extracting the value of 4IR, especially responsible AI, to uplift society and grow our economies.

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