AI, automation the only option for SA

South Africa’s only option for addressing poverty and poor economic growth is to embrace 4IR technologies such as automation and Artificial Intelligence, to make the country more competitive.

This is according to Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Johannesburg and author of Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa, who addressed the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) Tabling Tech webinar hosted by Johan Steyn – IITPSA Chair: Special Interest Group – AI & Robotics; and Tony Parry – IITPSA CEO this week.

In a highly engaging webinar, Prof. Marwala noted that despite concerns about people being displaced by automation, 4IR progress had to be made.

“The future will be bleak indeed if South Africa does not master AI,” he said. He cited Russian President Vladimir Putin who said that nations that master AI will conquer the world. “It goes without saying that those who don’t master AI will be conquered – they will have no stake in the economic activities of the time.”

He noted that while South Africa had pockets of AI excellence, the local AI community tended to be fragmented, resulting in a failure to build economies of scale. Prof. Marwala also said that humans needed to be taught 4IR literacy and reskilled in order to thrive in an era of 4IR industrialisation.

“We should not view this as a balancing act between progress and employment – we need a mindset of competitiveness. This grows the economy and without a larger economy, we can’t create jobs and grow businesses. We have to educate the people, reskill people and create a safety net, but most importantly we need to expand the economy. There are many economic activities we are not even participating in – like the electronic industry. We need to be more preoccupied about competitiveness – it’s the only way we will become wealthier and raise the capital we need to deal with problems such as poverty and unemployment. Automation is not one of the options – it is the only option,” Prof. Marwala said.

He pointed to a need for adult education programmes, investment in new technologies of production, incentives to drive automation, expanded infrastructure of connectivity, open data platforms and more public-private partnerships to drive progress.

He added: “We need to implement strategies to use 4IR technologies to increase our competitiveness and industrialise. In South Africa, we tend to talk too much, and I think it is time to start doing,” he said.

Steyn agreed: “We should not sit back and wait for things to happen. We have to jump in and make it happen.”

Parry echoed this sentiment, saying that as a professional body for ICT practitioners, the IITPSA was well positioned to support progress through its thought leadership forums, skills development and education programmes, and partnerships with industry events. “We have a role to play in growing awareness and bringing the right parties together. The Institute is also well positioned to explore collaboration with other stakeholders and broader AI and 4IR initiatives, including exploring the important topic of ethics in AI,” he said.

The IITPSA hosts regular Tabling Tech webinars to share industry expertise, experience and engaging networking opportunities. To see upcoming events visits