Technology has permeated different aspects of our lives and by all indications this is only going to increase with Artificial Intelligence (AI) set to be at pole position.

On the 30 September 2019, Microsoft in partnership with Future Africa hosted an AI for Good workshop with the aim to understand the potential that AI has to help solve the complex challenges facing South Africa and Africa. The two focal themes were AI for Earth with a special focus on Agriculture and AI for Humanitarian Action. The format of the workshop included two guest speakers for each theme, a simultaneous break-away session for each theme and a plenary session. Various stakeholders were present ranging from academia, NGO’s and business.

The University of Pretoria ABSA Chair for Data Science and Tuks Young Research Leader Programme Fellow 2018, Dr Vukosi Marivate , started with defining and clarifying the concepts of AI and Machine Learning (ML). He gave an example of how ML has been used in Agriculture in the continent, specifically in the diagnosis of Cassava Leaf disease. About his research group, Dr Marivate indicated that they focused on Data Science for Society, and Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning. He highlighted that cross-disciplinary research is the cornerstone of AI and ML, and predicted that cross-disciplinarity is how modern science will be conducted going forward. To conclude, Dr Marivate spoke about The Deep Learning Indaba as a platform to develop, connect and strengthen the African machine learning community. Visit Vukosi Marivate's website

Mr Peter Reid from Mint Intelligent Insights spoke about AI and Ethics, and AI for Humanitarian Good. For the AI and Ethics, his talk was structured into three sections namely, Machine Ethics (what the ethics of people that design the software), Robo Ethics (what are the ethics of the machine themselves) and Ethical Computer use (how people use the tools provided for them in an ethical manner). The take-home message was that for the majority of the time people could trust the intended purpose of AI products however they must always remain vigilant. He also highlighted that as with any other technology that preceded AI (using the US as a baseline), the net effect of the technology will often result in a jobs gain that far outweighs the direct loss of jobs as a consequence of the technology. He indicated that new industries are often created which otherwise would not have been possible were it not for the new technology. For AI for Humanitarian Good, Mr Reid spoke about the various projects his company is involved in with the public and private sector. 

During the break-away and plenary sessions, the workshop reflected on the potential of AI within the African continent. Important to it was how you tie the AI skills with the needs that exist in order to build solutions. Among the major challenges raised was the scarcity of networks within this space, to serve as a platform to learn how challenges were addressed and provide insights on working with different partners. The workshop concluded that collaborations among various stakeholders will be important to maximize the potential that AI presents to help solve societal challenges within the African continent.

To this workshop, Microsoft provided a link to their AI for Good initiative where applications for grants are possible: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/ai/ai-for-good