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Picture: 123RF/SASHKIN7
Picture: 123RF/SASHKIN7

An unlikely convergence of four factors has set SA up for a boom in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) as local companies are urged to keep up to remain competitive in an increasingly borderless technological world. 

AI is a discipline that combines computing power, mathematical algorithms and data, which enable problem-solving by mimicking human intelligence. 

The first factor is the Covid-19 lockdown, which led to a country slowly edging online to totally embracing online, mostly out of necessity. And with the change came the generation of even more data, as everything has a much greater digital footprint. Many businesses are now sitting on much more comprehensive and useful data, which could provide as yet unseen customer and market insights. 

The second factor is a growing trend of giant global technology companies establishing data centres in SA. In the past few years Amazon and Microsoft have instituted data centres geared towards supporting their AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Azure cloud services respectively in SA.

While AWS and Azure are already available to SA businesses, the data centres will greatly augment the offerings. Huawei is an even more recent addition to data centre capabilities in SA.

The implementation of the data centres will provide SA businesses with the ability to store their information in the country, improving the safety, speed and accessibility and, of course, analysis of information.

Third, and this is a fact that surprises everyone, SA companies have hired large numbers of data scientists, ranking sixth in a recent survey done before Covid-19. We are a small country, and data scientist skills are increasingly scarce, but our businesses clearly recognise the advantages of data analytics. And such recognition is going to drive even greater corporate use of AI to underpin innovation. 

The fourth factor is SA’s regulatory framework. In 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which will assist the government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital revolution. The task of the commission is to identify the relevant policies, strategies and action plans that will position SA as a competitive global player.

SA businesses now also need to be customers that are subject to the Protection of Personal Information Act, which defines how data is stored, processed and protected. Having a legal framework for this creates clarity on how data may be treated, giving companies more certainty on how it may be used in their business as they adopt AI. 

So where can AI be used advantageously in business? Just about everywhere; the number of cases is enormous. And it is already so much a part of our daily lives. From email spam filtering, autocomplete in messaging apps and customer service chatbots to blurring backgrounds on Zoom calls and targeting advertising — it is all thanks to AI. 

And AI applications possibilities will grow dramatically, particularly for those companies that embed it in their operations. They can use it to automate business processes, but the real winners will be those that embed it in the products themselves or that serve customers better.

Telematics insurance products are a good example. A method of monitoring cars, trucks, equipment and other assets, Telematics uses GPS technology and on-board diagnostics to plot the asset’s movements on a computerised map. 

Insurers can use AI to learn how you drive, predict how much of an accident risk clients are, fairly price premiums and even encourage safer driving.

A further example is the growing use of AI by fintech companies to analyse customer behaviour to better assess credit risk and speed up loan application and approval processes. 

The applications are limitless and can often lead to businesses developing superior products. But they need to think first about their business strategy and challenges before considering how to support or solve them with AI, rather than trying to lead with use cases. We encourage businesses to think about their customers’ problems and pain points; and how they can solve them differently. 

There is an added challenge when it comes to AI: the answer to a question often results in an answer that is unfeasible. The quality of data is often a constraint, meaning a lot of what companies come up with simply is not implementable. They have to ask an additional question: what can I do with the data that I have to assess the intersection of customers’ needs and deliver an innovative competitive advantage. 

Innovating in this way with AI needs multidisciplinary teams because technically minded people often build “cool tools” that no-one wants because they do not solve real-world needs. People who are less technical may come up with more practical solutions to solve real problems, but which may not be feasible to build. 

Having both kinds of people in the room is critical for turning data into AI gold. 

• Pather is EY Africa AI & advanced analytics leader.

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