Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane: Africa Tech Week

5 Mar 2019

Remarks by the Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, at Africa Tech Week, Cape Town, 5 March 2019

Programme Director;
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen

Let me first take this opportunity to thank the organisers for being open to adjusting my speaking slot.  It is an honour to participate in this year's Africa Tech Week, which is taking place at a time when the development of technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution has started in earnest.

Dr Kai-Fu Lee, who is the chairperson of the Global Artificial Intelligence Council, of which I am a member, has written a very interesting book entitled AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.  In it, he argues very strongly that China will become the global leader in artificial intelligence (AI), surpassing the United States of America.

He believes that all the major breakthroughs in terms of AI algorithms, the most recent being the rapid advances in deep learning algorithms, have been accomplished.  These breakthroughs were mainly driven by the United States.  In other words, the US led the first phase of artificial intelligence; China will lead second phase.

Dr Lee argues that we are now entering this second phase of artificial intelligence, which he calls the Age of Implementation.  In this phase we will see the application of AI algorithms to problems such as diagnosing a disease, predicting interstate conflict, portfolio selection in the market, driving a car, or translating a language.  Dr Lee compares the application of AI algorithms to the discovery of electricity.  Once electricity was discovered in algorithm form, it could be applied almost everywhere – from cooking and lighting to powering factories for production.  He also predicts that the people who will cash in during this period of implementation will be talented entrepreneurs, engineers and product managers.

The question is: Why does he think China will lead the Age of Implementation?  The answer: Data.  China is collecting vast amounts of data.

AI algorithms are driven by three things, namely big data, computing power, and the work of strong AI algorithm engineers.  In the Age of Implementation, data is the key.  This phase of AI will also signal a transition to the Age of Data.  It is believed that this transition will be to China's advantage. China is collecting more than data any other country in the world.  This means that China has all the ingredients required to dominate the current phase of AI.  China's engineers are as good as their Western counterparts, though not as creative. Computing power is equitably distributed globally.  It is the abundance of data in China that will give it the edge, enabling it to dominate.

Whether Dr Lee is correct in asserting that the golden age of algorithm discovery is behind us and that we have entered the implementation age, leading to the age of data, we will see in the fullness of time.

However, it is clear that whether his predictions are true or not, data will be the fuel of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  Three weeks ago, I participated in a forum on artificial intelligence and information and records management at the South African Reserve Bank, and one of the speakers warned against using the phrase, "Data is the new oil".  His view is that oil is not reusable; once you burn it, that's it, it cannot be used again.  By contrast, data is reusable; data collected today can be used a thousand years from now.

With this in mind, the question that we need to be asking is:  Are we as a country, and more broadly the African continent, sufficiently collecting data?  More broadly, what is it that we are putting in place in our country to ensure that we are able to respond to the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?

South Africa has made substantial investments in cyberinfrastructure, as well as in the acquisition and generation of data across a number of domains.  Driven by initiatives such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), these commitments are set to greatly increase in the future, uniquely positioning the country to derive substantial benefits from big data.  However, South Africa should not just be a collector of data; rather, the economic, social, scientific and industrial beneficiation potential of big data for the country must be realised.

Admittedly, a lot more still needs to be done to improve our data collection.  This brings me to an important technology which is one of the pillars of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Internet of Things (IoT).  Technologies such as 5G, IoT sensors and platforms, edge computing, AI and analytics, robotics, blockchain, additive manufacturing and virtual reality are coalescing into a fertile environment for the Industrial Internet of Things.

Enabling IoT will lead to an exponential increase in sensors capable of collecting vast amounts of data from every piece of equipment.

In this regard, we should all welcome the assurance made by the President in his State of the Nation Address, and echoed by the Minister of Finance, that our colleague in Cabinet, Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams, will soon be issuing a policy directive to ICASA on the licensing of frequency spectrum.  This will pave the way for investments in 5G technology that will completely change the Internet of Things landscape.

With regard to 4IR, we are in the process of establishing an African 4IR centre, in the form of a South African affiliate to the World Economic Forum's Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  The proposed centre, to be hosted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), will be aimed at creating an integrated and comprehensive response to the African and, specifically, South African challenges highlighted in the National Development Plan (NDP), as well as those that are new and emerging, by leveraging the new wave of technological revolution that is upon us.  The centre will assist with the coordination of research, innovation and conformance standards testing to enable Africa to effectively tackle its socio-economic challenges and become a competitive participant in the global economy.

Another notable development in the 4IR space is the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (CAIR), a distributed centre conducting foundational, directed and applied research into various aspects of artificial intelligence.  CAIR has nodes at five South African universities – the University of Cape Town, University of KwaZulu-Natal, North-West University, University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University – and is coordinated and managed by the CSIR.

Similar platforms in nanotechnology, additive manufacturing, cybersecurity, unmanned aerial systems, and biotechnology have developed and grown through funding and investment support from the Department of Science and Technology (DST).  Efforts are under way to support the development of platforms in blockchain, data science and analytics, quantum computing, and the Internet of Things.

The Global Artificial Intelligence Council, which I referred to earlier, will provide strategic guidance to the international community on the priorities for artificial intelligence and machine learning governance and cooperation, while helping to shape policy development and pilot implementation work undertaken in this regard across the centres in the network.  The work will include the piloting of policies aimed at proactively mitigating the risks and exploiting the benefits of emerging technologies for society.

As I was reading through what Africa Tech Week is about, I learned that, among other things, the event aims to "show businesses how technology can be leveraged to make more money, save more money and become fully efficient in a sustainable way."  I think that sustainability is a very important aspect that needs to be considered when introducing new technologies.  It is important that the sustainability that Africa Tech Week aims to promote extends beyond individual business sustainability.  Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State and a controversial giant of American foreign policy, believes it may be a lot harder to control the development of AI weapons than nuclear ones.  For this reason it is also important to think about safety, the sustainability of jobs, and the sustainability of democracy.

One of the biggest concerns that law makers, and members of the Global Artificial Intelligence Council, have is around the regulation of the technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  Undoubtedly, AI is one of the exponential technologies that are rapidly altering the global business landscape.  And I'm quite certain that a lot of money will be made from these technologies.  My concern, and I think it should be a concern for all of us, is, at what cost?  And what is it that we need to do to avoid this cost?

To help us answer some of these questions, we commissioned a baseline and literature survey study of 4IR in South Africa, the findings of which are expected to be presented by the Human Sciences Research Council during the first part of the next fiscal year.  Further concepts, such as a converging technologies platform and an inclusive development platform, both of which are directed at enhancing the country's ability to take advantage of the 4IR, are currently being refined.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has also established the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will help the country to respond comprehensively to the new environment, including how AI can assist us in building a better country.

Together with all stakeholders, namely business, labour and civil society, we will work to develop policies and regulations that will assist us to reap the benefits of the new technologies, while averting the risks and dangers that may arise in the future because of these technologies.  We invite all of you to work with us to create a better future for all.

I thank you.