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AI from a perspective of South Africa with Nazareen Ebrahim

If the geopolitical narrative is anything to go by, then Africa is busy asserting itself as a powerhouse to be reckoned with and we will see that movement over the next two years. 

When it comes to AI, South Africa might not be the first country that comes to mind, but times are changing. In this week’s CDO Insights, we have an industry expert from South Africa shedding light on the evolving AI landscape in the region.

Nazareen Ebrahim is a distinguished professional with expertise spanning media, communications, and technology. As the driving force behind Naz Consulting International, a prominent African communications firm, she brings a wealth of experience to the industry. In addition to her media accomplishments, Nazareen is the visionary founder and CEO of Socially Acceptable, a not-for-profit tech research organization committed to fostering a responsible digital citizenry. 

Her role as an AI Ethics Officer at the organization underscores her dedication to ethical technology practices. As the AI Ethics Practitioner at Socially Acceptable, Nazareen is actively engaged in developing a framework that guides South African businesses in integrating ethical considerations into their AI ventures. Her efforts extend beyond her organization, encompassing partnership programs aimed at initiating a National AI dialogue in South Africa in early 2023. With these endeavors, Nazareen Ebrahim is at the forefront of promoting responsible AI practices and upholding ethical standards in the digital landscape.

AIM: When we engage in discussions about AI, data science, and digital technologies, South Africa often does not stand out, not only within its borders but also in the broader African context. Considering this, and the fact that every country has its unique AI strategies and policies, what do you perceive as the key challenges and considerations South Africa faces in its AI adoption journey, given its distinctive position in the African landscape?

Nazareen Ebrahim: When you talk about challenges with South Africa, for anyone globally, the first answer that comes to mind is the energy crisis that we have here. Alongside the energy crisis is also the unemployment rate which is standing out at this point from the latest stats South Africa show between 38-40%.  They fluctuate with a number of parameters that impact them that ultimately come to the point, and someone made this comment recently at the launch of the Cape Town chapter of the South African AI Association which was “We don’t need to train for the sake of training. We need to train for an actual use case and output. So, have a project, train young people, put them on the project, let them work in output, that’s the ideal opportunity and that’s what should happen in any case in any project environment.” 

But what tends to happen here is that there are many training programs with wonderful idealistic outputs around increasing skills, particularly technical skills, in data science, cybersecurity analysis and other key technical skills like of the tech industry that are highly lacking in this economy. And saying that, the success market is with training, so many people have a certificate regarding the job marketing and then what? So, when we speak about the challenges that is paired with, an understanding of how young people view their participation in the economy, but also the digital economy is something we have to interrogate from all perspectives. Whether it’s a governmental perspective, private sector, civil society organizations and at the education level, early Childhood Development. I would think across the border. I’m speaking from the perspective, not only as a player in the tech industry here, but from an observer analyst point of view, as well as understanding how our work can shape policy and regulatory environments. But also from the perspective of a communications and a societal view, and that is an interesting one to know is that we’ve got to have that ongoing conversation and open up people’s minds to what we understand about our role here.

AIM: In the context of global concerns about job displacement due to AI, what are the implications for Africa? How can African countries foster the development of AI technologies within the region to ensure equitable distribution of benefits and address potential job challenges?

Nazareen Ebrahim: We’re going into an environment or a space where things are uncertain. We may have some forms of legislation. We may have some vehicles that have been established forms of legislation, like the CyberSecurity Act, The Protection of Personal Information Act and other legislation that gives insight into what potentially could happen around data privacy and technological enhancement or capability. Also, if we have to understand the regulatory framework around which both comes from the government wanting and we hope to a great degree, one thing to protect citizens rights and to allow them equal or fair participation in the digital economies. That’s how we ultimately want to see. But in the perspective of how that looks for jobs, the regulatory framework is uncertain at this point because we all know and this is a common thread across every AI ecosystem across the world is that the regulation can’t keep up enough with the output or the piece of the development that we have right now so, where does that put us?

That puts us in the hands of people who have the funding and capability to continue building this type of tools for output within users. They can come in the form from the finance industry, health care, manufacturing, agriculture, automotive. If we look at the South African context, our biggest industries here, finance industry, have led by example in using AI as a linking capability in order to improve customer service, to improve output for trends, to offer customers better products because they are able to predict trends and have a hyper personalized view of a customer. We have seen that across all really large major banks in South Africa.

In the healthcare sector we’re starting to see output of apps like Caesar Health, which is an example of an app based here which I know will be familiar to anyone in any AI ecosystem across the world that uses a combination of Telehealths. Take your data. links you to a doctor who understands what may be wrong with you in the first instance, combining the use of a chat bot, which is also I think for any user, the first step into interacting with what AI could look like for you. As an end user when you’re talking to a product or a platform and then you delve deeper into that to have your services or your needs met when you’re using a service provider.

And again, let me pull that back into the question, you ask me, which is around, we’re just giving context there which is around. What does that look like for jobs? The regulatory environment here can only go so fine in trying to first gain an understanding of how much will this impact the end user. Part of that impact is around ethics. Is around accepting that this tech is here, it’s alive. It may do something not understanding well enough how that tech may impact. So the progression is slow. On the other hand we’ve got economic powerhouses in the form of private sector companies, who can quickly have that output and are impacting all their customer base, whether we like it or not from our banking apps, from the way we shop, if you’re using something like a doordash. Here, in South Africa, you’ve got a Checkers Sixty60. The Checkers Sixty60 App is probably one of the best examples of how a private national grocery chain was able to onboard so many users quickly enough with the tech that they had. They were able to board a number of drivers, linking the products that they had, starting to have a hyper personalized approach to how I wanted to shop in the shop. I buy checked groceries on the Checkers Sixty60 app and it’s become an invaluable part of my day. Especially if I’m not around and I need to order groceries from my parents, as an example. When we look at the impact, then on jobs itself, given the context that we have, which we are no different from other countries around the world, the concerns and the challenges are the same. But the difference appears in the level of digital education, citizen education that we have around our citizen rights in terms of a digital output and what it means to own our data. It also is about how much freedom do we have to participate in a digital economy. Whether people have access to good internet, the mobile phones that they have. Can they participate well enough? They can. We use this region like I am sure in India, WhatsApp is a great use case for how people can participate in their digital economy and at a great scale. So there are a number of parameters to talk to. People are going to think that their jobs are going to be taken, but there is a slight shift in understanding that

AI is not going to overtake jobs completely. Rather you will need to work alongside these tools of these machines or thinking or models.

AIM: As a board member responsible for overseeing AI literacy in the country, what key steps and initiatives can South Africa take to raise awareness and enhance AI literacy rates? Are there any immediate priorities or actions that you believe are crucial for other countries to consider as well in this endeavor?

Nazareen Ebrahim: So the South African AI Association’s mandate is to promote the awareness of what Artificial Intelligence means for all citizens and that is done through congregating a number of professionals in the AI industry, whether they’re enthusiasts, commentators, writers, researchers engineers, policymakers and members of government. This is necessary for us here because the South African example , a case study so far has brought us to the stage where the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies has established a number of vehicles that may be an ideal opportunity to promote and give rise to AI programs in the country that combine all of the different sectors of society that we talked about.

But has that happened yet? No, it has not happened yet. And at the launch of the Cape Town chapter that happened late last week on Thursday, the head of policy who was on one of the panels spoke of these initiatives, about the AI Institute that was launched last year. We had the Presidential Commission, on the fourth Industrial Revolution released sometimes just after Covid had become a national international pandemic, there was a report released giving recommendations about South Africa’s way forward to respond to the fourth IR (Industrial Revolution) and its impact and requirement for people to move with it.

Those recommendations are very much still recommendations. And what needs to happen now and what was a great output from the conversations we had then. Remember too, we had this in the Western Cape and one of the people who attended was the premiere of the Western Cape. For many people outside of our governing structures in South Africa, we have nine provinces which make up the country and the province of the Western Cape or any province is led by a political leader from a political party who has been boarded in. He essentially acts as the head of the governing structure within that province and that’s the premiere. So the premiere of the Western Cape, Allen Windy was present, and he delivered a short speech ahead of the panel discussions which I moderated. His takeaway was around scenario planning using AI tools for better service delivery. Scenario planning, and from a premiers point of view, of course, service delivery is going to be number one with them. And we have service delivery protests in South Africa almost on a daily basis. Now there are a number of reasons for that but it’s a good place to start, especially from a digital government. And so, The South African AI Association then by holding that out what would be great to see and what we hope to achieve in the next six months, at least is to start channeling the thinking around AI’s output on citizens by getting policymakers and members of Parliament onto the right track or steering them onto the right road of being equipped enough and educated enough on how to handle these matters. We can agree across the world, you can sit in any parliament and it would be nice to have parliamentarians or MP’s with a much better understanding of the technologies and their use cases and their capabilities. And also the impacting technologies that give it permanence. So if you look at AI as an example, you would need data training, you would need a certain kind of engineer. There’s so many dependent factors or dependencies on it. So it would be nice for them to have a great understanding and that leads me to then a national AI conversation which New Zealand did very successfully in 2019-2020 with the New Zealand government and coordinating with the World Economic Forum. So, that’s a first step for us. It’s empowering people in the legislature, MPs. It’s starting a national AI conversation. And in that role is also bringing together people who are already impacting the ecosystem from VC’s to private sector companies and to people working in this space.

AIM: In the pursuit of sustainable growth in AI technologies and nurturing a culture of responsible innovation, what specific steps and initiatives is South Africa undertaking to build and cultivate AI talent? Are there any notable developments akin to the introduction of undergraduate-level AI courses, as seen in India, that are helping pave the way for future talent in the field?

Nazareen Ebrahim: Those steps are being taken in different spaces, particularly academia. And I should say to a great degree the global tech companies presence here in South Africa by offering programs that capacitate digital literacy and digital learning. So, in those two ways, we’ve seen an influx of learning and development partnership. In addition to understanding that we have some sense of a VC landscape here. Knife Capital comes to mind and is an interesting one who went into a Series B round of funding so that they can fund new ventures here and they fund in a specific manner. 

In addition to that to capacitate skills here. It’s interesting to know that if we look at universities, the University of Johannesburg was really great back in 2019. They had introduced a mandatory AI beginners course for every student who joined the university, but it was just a module, but it was a way of getting people to understand the technology made an impact. In the various university spaces, as well, there are incubators for research, the R&D departments, they have an opportunity to test the technology. And University of Pretoria is another one. The Sewanee University of Technology was also co host in the first and official launch of the South African AI Association. They have common borders and key players. Also as part of the association, Google South Africa has come on board which was a key indicator to us of what it would look like for us to develop a national AI conversation with the right players. And so, when you look at the academia Part and University of Cape Town University, Stellenbosch, many of them have programs and research areas that are going on in terms of the impact of responsible AI on citizens through various lenses, whether it’s from a work perspective, healthcare whatever it might be. The second part of that is a private sector and private sector Salesforce made an announcement when they came here recently with their global roadshow.

They announced introducing courses at university level for their enterprise platform. So students could be onboarded almost immediately. If you’re going to go to the marketplace now and I work primarily in the digital space. The very least I should have an understanding of how to do emails, how to browse and how to research online. But you should also know some key core tools like Canva or the Google or Microsoft Suite of tools as an example. I should be able to articulate myself in those cases or use them for some very basic output.

The way that we learn and the places that we need to learn and have changed fundamentally over the last century. So even the conversation around early childhood development and how kids are on boarded early enough through reading, writing and understanding. These days, the third party tools with many code sets available means you don’t have to be a developer. So what happens to the actual development capability. And we have to start thinking very quickly about how kids learn and what the future work will be like. The question you asked around the outputs of skills development. There is movement. There is a great interest in how people are capacitated whether that’s channeled well enough into actual output for people to get work for them to have sustainability is another question and it’s where we are having a challenge at the moment.

AIM: As someone hailing from South Africa, what is your perspective on the role of big tech companies like Google and Salesforce, who are increasingly investing in the country? What do you believe should be their role in fostering and enabling AI ecosystems, and how can they effectively leverage AI for the betterment of society and the world?

Nazareen Ebrahim:  So I would like to pair my professional answer with the personal opinion about just understanding the landscape and that would be that Global tech organizations have their heart always a tech for good approach. They want to empower and enable citizens all over the world. They want to do that in multiple ways. And ultimately offering that kind of call services skill is going to grow their database of customers, and give them access to data sets that previously they would not have had access to. In a way that they have sponsored it for themselves. So, the one thing that we have to be very certain about and this is mindful of the way developed nations come to developing nations to give them funding and say, I’m giving you a certain amount of money. We’re on these programs in your countries, but there’s always a funders agenda behind that. I’m always mindful of the funders agenda that’s behind these elements around the lobbying power that these tech organizations could potentially have around the regulatory environment here to serve them more than it would serve their end user. That for me, is an interesting point to think about, to throw out as a point of consideration. The second would be the rights of the digital user. Now, we all know of the many conflicts but the many troubles that many of the global tech corporations have faced around data privacy, the rights of people, the ethics around their platforms. We have heard many times on Facebook being fined, Google has its own long history with trust and safety around AI and the people that they had fired, particularly a lady named Timnit Gebru. There are many people who talk about the harmful impacts. The other dark side of that is the work opportunities or the training opportunities that they may pose here may ultimately not be what we want. There was an interesting report in The Economist about a human and this was for Amazon Web services. It was about the moderation services that the global tech corporations offer in terms of providing as safe service as possible. And the gentleman who spoke there because he was so traumatized by it he was left with severe depression, many driven to societal attempts because of the amount of content that they have to take in and try to figure out whether it’s safe or not for human consumption. They’re also paid very little and this work is being channeled to the African continent. So I am mindful of the funders agenda that the global tech corporations come here with that may be wrapped in a very shiny foil of idealistic altruistic purposes. Another good thing is this term called Long termism, which is doing their rounds in use and media outlets around billionaires who have this very idealistic concept of what the future looks like, but only for a few people.

And what would that future be? And everything’s put into the perspective of, “We’ve got to do right, we have to stop the development of AI for the next six months. Let’s sign a letter.” I know Sam Altman, and Elon Musk have their voices to that letter, a few months ago, What would that look like? So again, we must be mindful that we live in a world that we have to be aware of constantly changing geopolitical relations, blocks or groups of countries who have friendly relations and want to build their own economic zones, but have to be mindful of the act of colonialism. And what that’s done for everyone and colonialism, whether it’s postcolonial comes in varying forms. It’s not just political colonialism everyone face.

AIM: In the broader context of Africa, where various countries and cultures coexist, one of the significant challenges in AI is the lack of available data and limited digitization in some regions. How do you envision South Africa, its neighboring countries, and the continent of Africa should proceed in the next five years to address these challenges and what potential opportunities lie ahead for the entire region in the realm of AI and technology?

Nazareen Ebrahim:  I would need a crystal ball which I don’t have with me right now. This must be a line that has been used in multiple interviews, “if code has taught us anything its unpredictability of what the future may hold.” However, that’s not what an actual scientist or anyone working in the insurance business will tell you is that they need to predict anyway. And if AI is anything to go by, the way it predicts has the level of capability prediction. What we do know for sure right now that can give us some sense of the way forward is that we are at the final cusp of getting ourselves ready. Our AI level of readiness potential economic wellness. We are the final cusp of getting there and getting ready. Should we miss the boat? We’re going to be very far behind as an economy. We have the vehicle in place, various mechanisms in place to enable a national AI conversation.

They are outputs of training opportunities that need to be rightly placed for better opportunities for young people who are being trained here. If you look at the rest of the African continent, the recent coup in Gabon that was against the president rather than an approach or a response to France, still having a colonial presence there. Remember Francis faced four coups in the last couple of months in the last duration of the period which is really a geopolitical story about African countries or economies trying to reclaim their place with young Africans wanting to take a step. They are in other parts of the African continent, that have put a certain effort to establish an AI authority, at least an AI understanding, a national AI understanding. Egypt. Tunisia, Rwanda, and Nigeria are countries that come to mind. In various capacities whether they have a national AI policy, a national AI strategy, a unit for AI following along with their neighbours, in the UAE, and the Middle East, which is also, impacting them, because of the region’s specifics, the capabilities are there. But as we grow as an African continent, our new place in the world, South Africa may have a number of opportunities that give us a privileged advantage, so to speak, being a country. They’re always looked at as an economic powerhouse leading the race. I’m not sure how other African brothers and sisters are going to respond to that at this stage, but if you look at it, I want to go back to this again, the BRICS block which has grown to 11 members now.

Times are uncertain and times are changing. How you set or poised to assert its role as a continent that doesn’t need handouts anymore. And if that’s going to be filtered down into the tech environment, certainly, there have been movements, especially in South Africa, around massive funding opportunities being flown into the country. But into private companies that have shown capability for growth. If we look at those movements, it means that in a year to two years from now, who knows what capability of the African continent to dictate AI Movement, Growth Skills, Partnership, particularly from an Africa Free Trade Agreement Point of view, Africa Union point of view, the static region, the static nations. We go across about 54 countries here, not everyone may have equal opportunity or equitable outcomes in terms of what AI looks like for them. But certainly, if the geopolitical narrative is anything to go by, then Africa is busy asserting itself as a powerhouse to be reckoned with and we will see that movement over the next two years. 

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