AI, Robotics and Automation

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), by 2025 30% of corporate audits will be performed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and additional research shows that Digital Transformation is now a priority for most business leaders. At our recent Thought Leaders engagement focussing on AI, Robotics and Automation, forward-thinking business leaders engaged around this topic and its transformative potential.

The session was opened by Aalia Manie, Senior Associate at Webber Wentzel, who shared some interesting insights and considerations on the subject. While there are legal and regulatory issues that we need to be concerned about, these should be addressed in a manner that does not overregulate and stifle innovation – a significant point as technology is considered a key driver of Cape Town’s economy. She then went on to say that AI is ‘here-and-now’ and possibly the ‘next big industry’, as PwC reports that by 2025 it will be worth $15.3 trillion – 12 times the size of the Australian GDP. As we become increasingly reliant on AI systems, Aalia highlighted that we need to consider issues of safety as these will ultimately impact our everyday lives. In the context of a developing country like South Africa, what does automation mean for large sectors of our society if human work is replaced by technology – how will people earn an income to feed themselves, and how will revenue be generated for social grants?

Dr Tapiwa Chiwewe, Manager and Research Scientist at IBM Research | Africa, noted that we are living in the cognitive era and witnessing a time where machines and humans will increasingly work together in a symbiotic partnership. He said that in the same way the Industrial Revolution and the steam engine transformed economies, cognitive computing will transform the way we live, work and play on a historic scale. Tapiwa said that data is transforming every industry and is in fact, the natural resource of the 21st century.

It was interesting to hear that today, in every field, decisions are made based on incomplete information. We pay a price for that – not being able to diagnose a patient, not knowing how to best educate our citizens or manage our environment – but imagine the impact of powerful new tools, designed to augment human intelligence and fill that gap. According to Tapiwa, AI will play a critical role in the partnership between people and learning/reasoning machines, that will help us to make smarter decisions. By bringing together what both humans and machines are good at, cognitive platforms such as IBM’s Watson should complement our way of thinking as well as our work, and enhance human skills and development. Tapiwa concluded by saying that the cognitive era should be approached in a transparent manner, ensuring the highest level of social and ethical standards. Examples of projects where Watson is being applied can be viewed here.

Dr Jacques Ludik, Founder and President of Machine Intelligence Institute of Africa (MIIA), spoke about the fact that technologies such as AI, robotics and automation can be fused together and shaped to form a better future and a more inclusive society. “In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish,” quoting Klaus Schwab, Founder and CEO of the WEF, Jacques said that we are standing on the brink of a technological revolution that will change everything. He followed by saying that while businesses have recognised the potential of big data, it is not enough to just collect the data – true value comes from extracting meaningful insights that will move businesses forward.

Disruption is no longer a future-trend and Jacques said that visionary leaders must, as part of their strategic planning, ask how disruption can be taken advantage of to thrive in a dynamic business world. With respect to AI and life in the future, he emphasised that SA requires an extreme rate of acceleration as far as 21st-century skills are concerned. He concluded by saying that we need to embrace disruptive technology such as AI and forge a way forward to a vibrant future, aiding AI driven growth.

The session ended with an interesting Q&A where business raised concerns about the bias of AI systems as these machines are only as good as the data they are fed, and that data unvaryingly reflects existing biases, as well as whether AI can level the playing fields in terms of socio-economic disparity.

Artificial Intelligence – Dr Jacques Ludick, MIIA

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