Artificial Intelligence (AI) is, at its most simple, the use of massive amounts of complex data to develop machines that will one day think and act like humans. Opinions on whether that is a good or bad idea is as varied as the number of experts you ask and chances are that you’ll bump up against a few confirmation biases along the line. Good or bad, there are many ways AI can and is being used successfully by start-ups in South Africa.
What are some of the concerns around AI?
They will take our jobs
There are those who believe AI to be the herald of the end (jobs, creativity, the world) and those who argue that AI will free us up for higher-order thinking tasks, thereby creating entirely new jobs. The loss of jobs to machines in the short term, is one of the most prominent objections to AI, but history gives us some clues about how it may play out.
During the 19th century1, the industrial revolution increased the amount of coarse cloth a weaver in America could produce by a factor of 50. Labour required in the short-term, reduced by 98 percent, but the demand for cloth increased in the long-term, creating four times more jobs.
What if they become evil?
There are concerns around the competence of AI robots to solve problems in a way which goes against human moral reasoning. Particularly in the area of warfare. Though these robots may not be purposefully malevolent, the fear is that in a quest for a desired outcome, their goals may become different to ours. Much work is being done in terms of the safety measures that will need to be put in place to control this tech.
If they become smarter than us, are we still in charge?
There is no way to predict how these machines will act once they are smarter than humans and a lot will need to be done to ensure their safety, but there are different types of ‘smart’. There are many tasks humans perform and take for granted that AI definitely cannot perform yet. Especially the creative and emotional type. Like a sales assistant building relationships with customers while her rote administration tasks are performed by machines or programs.
AI in SA
These concerns aside, there are ways AI is being used for more than just “Siri”. And South Africans are joining in.
We may be decades away from truly developed AI entities that will function independently and safely. South Africa has a myriad of social, economic and cultural hurdles to cross before it will be ready to implement and use AI effectively. Yet there are still a few start-ups using AI already to give them the edge:
This start-up is using machine learning and big data, to provide AI solutions to uniquely South African problems such as predicting cable theft, pre-screening tenants and predicting the chances of them defaulting. They are being used successfully by big shopping centres and retailers.
This company uses AI to augment human skills rather than replace them. They operate in the sales industry, creating virtual advisors that help sales agents in call centres and sales offices with on-the-spot decision-making.
Xineoh’s application of precision mathematical modelling to advertising technology has generated over USD30 million for their clients. Among others, they work with ebay and Amazon, targeting customers based on similar customer behaviour.
This is another start-up using AI to solve problems, profitably. Aerobotics develops drone technology that provides farmers, mining companies and insurers with an aerial view of areas at risk, as well as satellite data, to diagnose, solve and prevent problems and cut costs. They have already had success here, in Australia and Europe.
Other uses for AI in SA
With the help of algorithms, big data about everything from crime statistics to weather patterns and camera surveillance, crimes could soon be predicted and suspects arrested before crimes occur, according to Solution House Software.
In Rwanda, drones are being used daily to deliver blood to transfusion centres in remote areas. Another technology that fits onto a smartphone is being used to detect early signs of cervical cancer, with AI guiding the medical professional through the decision-making and diagnostic process.
In the workplace of the future, AI also promises the removal of timewasting tasks such as organising our diaries, appraisals, setting up appointments and warning us about traffic jams.
Until then, Regus, the global company that offers flexible workspace, provides start-ups and businesses like these with technological solutions they need to excel, such as WI-FI, VOIP and solving rote tasks such as phone-answering and mail-handling. They also provide spaces for networking and collaboration between like-minded individuals.
The opportunities for changing the world with AI are many and it is no longer a case of “if” but “when”. But start-ups and entrepreneurs in South Africa have a real opportunity to get in the game and develop tech that could change the world in a uniquely South Africa context.