AI likely to hit South Africa harder than other countries: expert

While technological advances such as artifical intelligence will likely give rise to many opportunities for economic and social development, they also involve important risks, which have special significance in developing countries such as South Africa.

In addition they may build upon and exacerbate existing inequalities – both within developing countries as well as between developing and more developed regions.

This is according to Ralph Hamann, a professor and research director at the UCT Graduate School of Business, who has outlined three of the biggest risks that AI could potentially pose to South Africa and other developing nations in an analysis for The Conversation.

Risk 1: Worsening unemployment

“The concern that new technologies – especially artificial intelligence – will lead to widespread job losses has been widely discussed,” said Hamann.

“Of course, the fear that new technologies replace workers is an old one. But it’s been pointed out that historically new technologies have often given rise to more new jobs than the ones that have been automated away.”

“What’s perhaps different now is that the new, interconnected digital technologies will likely have a broader and more far-reaching array of abilities. And so the prospect of new kinds of jobs may well be diminished or limited to increasingly sophisticated domains, such as machine learning.”

Hamann also warned that new technologies are now not just replacing jobs, but are also enabling the disruption and restructuring of entire industries – similar to how Uber transformed the taxi industry.

The dearth of effective education systems and skills in countries like South Africa will make it more difficult for people to be retrained for the technology intensive new jobs that will become available, he said.

“Secondly, all governments are struggling to grapple with the implications of new technologies and associated new business models. This struggle is particularly strong in developing country governments. The case of Uber in South Africa reflects this.”

Risk 2: Increasing concentration of wealth

Because wealthy individuals will be more likely to make use of AI and other new technologies. This will further increase returns to capital widening the gap between elites’ productive capacity and that of everyone else, said Hamann.

“New technologies’ advantages for capital are not just due to increasing productivity, but also because they allow new business models that may control or even dominate entire sub-sectors and stifle competition,” he said.

“For instance, it could become possible for a single company to control large fleets of automated vehicles in one or more large areas.”

He warned that  much will depend on whether states can keep up with these developments and respond effectively and that particular attention needed to be paid to intellectual property and competition law.

“Even so, many developing country governments are not giving these developments their due attention,” he said.

Risk 3: Bias baked into algorithms

One of the biggest risks already being seen in modern-day AI is that AI algorithms reflect and perpetuate the contexts and biases of those that create them. This has been seen by the difficulties faced by voice recognition software in recognising particular accents, said Hamann.

“Of course, the promise is that AI will enable such systems to learn to address such issues. But the learning process itself might be influenced by racial, gender, or other prejudices.

“AI algorithms are developed almost entirely in developed regions. Thus they may not sufficiently reflect the contexts and priorities of developing countries. Ensuring that AI algorithms are appropriately trained and adapted in different contexts is part of the required response.

“It would be even better if developing countries become more engaged in the development of new technological systems from the get-go,” he said.

Read: Why SA businesses need to have rules for smartphones and wearables

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AI likely to hit South Africa harder than other countries: expert