Kathy Gibson reports – The launch of ChatGPT less than one year ago marked a significant milestone in the world – sparking enthusiasm and opening our eyes to the opportunities that artificial intelligence (AI) can offer.

The panel discussing the new report on generative AI: Nihmal Marrie, MD and partner of BCG, Martin Bekker lecturer: School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits Business School and Ayanda Ngcebetsha, data, analytics and AI director at Microsoft SA.

This is the word from Maurice Radebe, head and director of Wits Business School, who adds that the technology could have the potential to radically influence some of the critical sectors in the South African economy.

These opportunities are outlined in a new report, “Africa: The Potential Impact of AI & Generative AI across Healthcare, Education, Financial Inclusion, and Agriculture”, which explores how AI can empower and uplift the country.

The report is a co-operative effort between Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Microsoft, and Wits Business School.

Radebe stresses that it’s critical AI technology doesn’t threaten peoples jobs. “We must understand that it is a powerful tool  that complements and enhances human endeavour.

“If we do not do this, we risk creating a fear of the technology. So we need to take a collaborative approach to AI, where it is used in combination with the best strengths of human intelligence.”

Nihmal Marrie, MD and partner of BCG, agrees that there is a lot or hype currently around AI. “But there is also a level pragmatism, and a realisation that the technology still needs to be refined

“There are risks, which have been talked about, but there is a unique opportunity to crate real, substantial change in critical sectors in South Africa.

“At the same time, there should a robust discussion of the risks, known and unknown. We need to find a way to navigate the opportunities while being mindful of the risk.”

The South African population has a high level of smartphone and Internet penetration, so the time is right to hae these discussions, Marrie adds.

Ayanda Ngcebetsha, data, analytics and AI director at Microsoft SA, believes the AI adoption level in South Africa is high.

“There is a reskilling opportunity for all of us, to ensure we channel these advances to ensure we gain significant progress.”

The challenges facing the economy are real, adds Martin Bekker lecturer: School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits Business School.

He points out that, as a general rule of thumb, South Africa ranks about 25th in world on most metrics. In healthcare, however, it ranks among the poorest or war-torn countries; in education it sits close to the bottom of 200 countries.

“So there are many areas where we are performing well. But there are also undeniable areas where we are clearly lagging,” he says.

“What we have with AI is a new class of tool. And there are opportunities to use this technology to solve the problems we have, to apply them directly for human betterment.”

There are risks associated with implementing AI, but there is a very real risk to the country if we don’t, Bekker says.

“The big things we can lose are the human gains. We are talking about making farming more effective, growing more food at a better cost; about using AI to provide career counselling in every school.

“We would lose out on many societal benefits, and things that are patently for the benefit of society.

“Yes, there would be a commercial cost, but the real cost will be in human gain.”

Ngcebetsha agrees, adding that South Africa is already behind in implementing many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and risks falling ever further behind without the application of new solutions.

“We would also lose out on the economic opportunity to potentially generate new jobs and accelerate industries into growth,”  he says.

“We have seen other countries that have leveraged technology to accelerate their economy and create new businesses. As a country we have the right ingredients and a unique opportunity  to create net new industries and jobs that could propel the economy forward.”

Introducing the new research report, Marrie says that to achieve scalable and affordable adoption in South Africa, and to realise South Africa’s full potential, local policymakers and stakeholders need to mitigate the risks and create a framework for responsible AI practices. These include financial and regulatory support, upgraded technology infrastructure and public-private collaboration.

In examining use cases for South Africa, the report identified a number of ways in which AI could make a transformative contribution to easing societal difficulties.

In the healthcare sector, this can include freeing up administrative time for doctors and nurses by transcribing and summarising consultations and automatically updating patient files or serving as a 24/7 health-education resource assisting with disseminating alerts and regular advice, regularly and in various languages.

Given the real challenges faced in the education sector locally, the benefits of AI in providing access to quality education is a game changer.  Through natural language processing, AI-powered tutors can assist learners with better access to resources by making sense of their questions and navigating intricate knowledge repositories to find the relevant information, mitigating teacher shortages, especially in public schools.

Expanding financial inclusion provides a backdrop for AI to make financial services more accessible to customers; support under-banked people through a conversational chatbot and expedite the drafting of legal documents.  Furthermore, AI enables engagement with clients in their native languages, helping them gain access to essential financial literacy and services.

Agriculture is a pivotal industry in South Africa and contributes to both GDP and exports, but climate change and under-productivity present significant challenges.  By using sensors, drones and satellites, farmers can collect real-time data on their crops and when analysed by AI algorithms, maximise crop yields and determine optimal planting times.

“By leveraging AI there are unique opportunities for South Africa to address key areas of historic inequity.  Collaborative action is needed now to unlock these opportunities while also calibrating potential,” concludes Marrie.