Africa cannot afford to take the back seat in one of the most important pursuits of modern science

By Benjamin Rosman

The continent needs its own experts to harness Artificial Intelligence towards our local challenges and priorities in Africa.

Behind buzzwords such as “data science” or “fourth industrial revolution” that we are constantly being bombarded with, is the promise of major disruption to every aspect of our lives, powered by the engine of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The technology underlying AI is the field of machine learning, which lies at the intersection of computer science and statistics, and is concerned with the question of how computers can learn to improve their own performance over time, by being exposed to an increasing amount of data.

This stands in stark contrast to former generations of software, which relied on humans to programme every fine detail of how they should operate, by hand. Several breakthroughs in this field in recent years have led to a plethora of exciting applications, including real-time translation between languages, automatic captioning and tagging of images, diagnosing cancers from medical tests, and autonomous driving.

Access to all

The potential benefits of this technology are numerous, and look to drive change at every level of society. Among the most important is the democratisation of critical services such as healthcare and education, with the ultimate aim of providing personalised interventions to every individual. This includes tools to treat or even eradicate a far greater number of diseases than ever before, at affordable rates. The same innovations are poised to offer greater transparency of governance, improve corporate and political decision-making, and enable more efficient logistics.

With these great opportunities comes the need for South Africa and Africa to play a part in developing and customising these tools, shaping them to deal with our realities, and not just reusing them off-the-shelf as developed in other parts of the world.

AI hints at the possibility of solving some of the greatest challenges we face as a species, if we get it right, and one of the greatest threats to our existence, if we fail to preempt the ramifications.

We need our own experts to harness these technologies towards our local challenges and priorities in Africa. We cannot afford to take a back seat in one of the most important pursuits of modern science. If the aim is to target a number of flaws in society, then we should be at the helm.

Young African scientists and technologists leading the way

Fortunately, we already have a number of highly skilled teams of researchers within our borders. The School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand has specifically been piloting the growth of our local research agenda.

Our researchers have already received much international recognition from the likes of Google and Huawei, and are the only team of African researchers to be publishing regularly at all major international machine learning, AI, and robotics conferences.

Under the RAIL lab (Robotics, Autonomous Intelligence, and Learning lab), our researchers are  making an impact in areas ranging from fundamental questions around how robots can organise their knowledge of the world to modelling the interaction between humans and machines, and applications of these ideas to the education and healthcare spaces.

Looking slightly further afield, the Deep Learning Indaba movement is a recent example of the talent that is already being cultivated on the continent. Founded by several Africans, based locally and abroad, this is already the largest week-long machine learning summer school in the world.

Over the last two years, this meeting has brought together almost 1,000 of the most ambitious and skilled machine learning practitioners and researchers from across the continent, to learn from each other and high-profile international speakers. This expanded to encompass 13 satellite events in countries across the continent with our IndabaX programme, reaching over 1,000 more attendees in 2018, with events due to be held in 27 African countries, half of the continent, in 2019.  The aim of these events is to not only train, but to celebrate the inspiring range of research projects, community and industry developments, and startup companies harnessing these cutting-edge technologies in Africa.

It is clear that we are approaching a watershed moment in our technological development, with the potential to benefit millions across society. It is important that we move forward with our collective eyes open, and are training enough smart young people to guide us in the right direction. It is a really exciting time, and when I see the calibre of young scientists and technologists, I am very optimistic about our future.

Benjamin Rosman is a Senior Lecturer and researcher in robotics, artificial intelligence, decision theory and machine learning in the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at Wits University. He also runs the Robotics, Autonomous Intelligence and Learning Laboratory at Wits University and was a co-organiser of the first Deep Learning Indaba in Africa held in 2017. The same year he received Africa’s only Google Faculty Research grant for his research focusing on decision making in autonomous systems. A Wits alumnus with a BSc (Honours) in Computer Science and a BSc (Honours) in Computational and Applied Mathematics, Rosman also holds a MSc in Artificial Intelligence and a PhD in Informatics from the University of Edinburgh.

This article originally appeared on www.wits.ac.za