Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

The introduction and use of artificial intelligence (AI) in SA may be hampered by concerns around job losses but experts argue new prospects could be created by the same technology, says a new report by EY Africa.

“Currently, 54% of companies rate impact on personnel as the top business risk in implementing AI,” said the AI Maturity Study, which was commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by EY.

AI has to do with machines demonstrating intelligence normally displayed by humans such as learning and problem solving.

With SA’s official unemployment above 27%, fear of potential job losses has dominated discussion around AI in business.

“In a region where unemployment rates are high, the job market is highly unionised and true understanding of AI is low, employees have an inherent reservation towards scaled adoption of AI and significant amounts of education and change management will be required,” said the report, released on Monday.

To fight this “automation anxiety”, the report suggests that companies need to implement programmes to reskill their human capital for the changing business environment. 

Microsoft SA’s managing director Lillian Barnard said: “I think we can take a cue from past major technological innovations like the invention of the telephone and the automobile.” There was a shift then and we should expect a shift now.

“It’s hard to predict what the future will bring. What we need is to focus our approach on providing the skills and training to ensure that we balance the equation. As much as we may perhaps lose jobs on one side, we can create new jobs on the other,” said Barnard. 

Despite the concerns around jobs, EY Africa's lead on intelligent automation, Brian Lewkowicz, said: “There is a general sense of excitement around what tomorrow could bring.”

The transforming or augmenting of roles is an exciting possibility. In a connected future, for example, when your smart fridge forgets to order milk you could call a “smart home handy man” who understands connected devices and AI, said Lewkowicz.

Having survived the disruption brought by inventions such as the calculator, spreadsheets and cloud computing, accounting is a profession constantly having to adapt its role to new technology.

Sage Africa & Middle East director of accountants, partners and alliances, Avika Ramdhani, said: “Accountants operate in an increasingly technologically-driven environment.”

“Knowledge of data analysis, for example, might one day be a non-negotiable skill for accountants who need to meet changing client demands,” she said.

Sage’s own research has found that most accountants agree that traditional accountancy training is no longer adequate and skills taught through today’s programmes will not be enough to run a successful practice by 2030.

“If you don’t yet have a formal training and upskilling plan in place for you and your team, consider implementing one as soon as possible,” said Ramdhani.

The Microsoft-EY study looked at the planned adoption and use of AI in companies and was based on surveys, interviews and case studies from 112 companies across the Middle East and Africa.

The study found  that SA, together with the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, was one of the top three countries in the region investing in AI in the past decade with $1.6bn  (about R23.7bn) spent. 

Ultimately, employees need to understand that AI is predominantly an enabling capability that enhances productivity and reduces the amount of time spent on menial tasks in order for them to embrace the application of AI and realise the benefits, the report said.

Each organisation and industry had its own view about the business opportunities and uses, said Lewkowicz.