Voices

We need African apps

2019-02-22 01:18

How do South Africans exploit fourth industrial revolution business opportunities?

The industries of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), which are powered by artificial intelligence (AI), such as social media, have changed our lives significantly.

Many of us are addicted to our technological gadgets.

It is often said that one of the most effective tools of torture is to separate people from their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

The technologies of the 4IR offer great entertainment, but what are the underlying business opportunities that they offer?

Google, for instance, has developed the quite sophisticated Google Translate, which translates words from one language to another.

However, not all languages are covered by this technology.

Google Translate is a forerunner of devices that will be implanted in our ears and will take any words we hear in any language and translate them into our native tongues.

This will be the post-language era when there will not be any need to learn another language.

Google Translate is not perfect and does not obey the principle of reciprocity which states that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

For example, it is more accurate when translating words from English to isiZulu than the other way around.

Another limitation of Google Translate is its inability to translate complex expressions.

For example, in isiZulu, when one sends condolences, an expression “akwehlanga lungehlanga” is used, but Google Translate gives the meaning as “race does not break”.

For Google Translate to be able to function well, in this context, it requires an isiZulu mother-tongue speaker to be involved.

Better yet, our people should create a technology translator that translates from isiZulu to English and vice versa.

An additional technology that has become popular over the last few years is electronic maps that are able to direct a person from one location to another, and are voice-activated.

These electronic maps are changing taxi drivers so much that they are losing their spatial intelligence because of their dependence on the maps.

But the maps are unable to pronounce our street names well, because an American person instead of a mother-tongue speaker records the voice for them.

To change this situation, either the companies that make these maps use local first-language speakers or, as South Africans, we create our own application that is able to pronounce our local street names.

Another area that needs localisation is face recognition software.

This is inadvertently discriminating against people of sub-Saharan African descent because the data used for these devices are gathered in North America, Europe and Asia.

For this reason, the machine-learning algorithm that powers these devices is biased against people of African descent.

To correct this bias, the companies that make these devices should expand their data to include African faces, or South Africans should create companies that collect data of African faces and train machine-learning algorithms that are able to recognise African faces.

Another area of concern is medical care. Many of our hospitals, especially in rural areas, do not have enough medical personnel.

At the University of Johannesburg (UJ), we have used AI technology to design software that can diagnose epilepsy, pulmonary embolism and TB.

These AI systems should ideally be programmed using local data because particular geographical locations have certain disease profiles.

Local companies should create data banks that collect local health data that can be used to train AI systems that can work alongside limited medical personnel, especially in our rural areas.

As South Africa seeks to implement land reforms, the issues of efficient farming and food security become paramount.

The only way agricultural productivity is going to increase is with the use of technology, and the 4IR is going to play a pivotal part in this.

Drones capacitated with high-resolution cameras collect land information and AI is used to classify the agricultural usages of the land.

In fact, technology is now so advanced that it is able to indicate which crop should be planted in which area, at what period, in order to maximise yield.

UJ is creating such technology, and the business opportunities that will result will have significant impact on our agricultural production.

Now how do we prepare South Africa to exploit these business opportunities?

. We need to be prepared for this revolution in terms of regulations, policies and investment strategy. This means that we should have enough people as well as physical and digital infrastructure to help us transition into the 4IR.

On the infrastructure side, the 4IR requires access to AI software. Google has created a library of free software in AI called TensorFlow. What we need is for people to study AI at basic, tertiary and adult education levels.

We need computational infrastructure that processes and stores data. We do not necessarily have to create this infrastructure; we can buy it from companies such as Amazon and Microsoft.

The CSIR’s Centre for High Performance Computing can play a role in the creation of such infrastructure.

We ought to start collecting data in all areas of national importance. The character of the 4IR is that data are the new oil and, therefore, we need to invest in data collection technologies.

South Africa should create a law that makes data intellectual property assets.

And we should train people to have systems perspectives so that they can build relevant AI systems, collectively understand problems in our society and build solutions that advance business interests.

Instead of waiting for multinational companies to include us in their business models, let us build our own businesses that will collaborate, through licensing and other mechanisms, with these companies. 

Marwala is the vice-chancellor and principal of UJ and author of the book Handbook of Machine Learning


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March 17 2019