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AI offers Africa an opportunity to leapfrog

AI offers Africa an opportunity to leapfrog

Artificial intelligence (AI) is considered to be one of the top ten strategic technology trends for 2018 and given Africa's population demographic, the continent has a clear opportunity to embrace this technology and leapfrog.

At the Gartner Symposium 2017, held this week in Cape Town, South Africa, Vice President and Research Head at Gartner Brian Burke said the company predicts 30% of CIOs will include AI in their top five investment priorities.

"AI is going to really become pervasive over time. The area of focus today is around machine learning, which is really looking at supervised learning, unsupervised learning and reinforcement learning, which are three different types of algorithms," Burke explains.

The improvement in these algorithms and hardware to enhance processing power is really driving AI and there is a concerted effort to develop and take on board new technologies.

Burke said that AI requires enormous compute power and for years the growth of AI has been constrained because of insufficient availability of this power.

"In the past we've used CPU technology, but over the last five years or so we've been deploying a lot of GPU or Graphic Processing Unit technologies. All of the major vendors, those that you may think of as hardware suppliers and may not think of as hardware suppliers, are developing specialised AI chips. Right now nvidia is really leading in GPU technology, but we're moving towards new technologies like field programmable gatarays, or applications specific integrated circuits, and these are two different approaches to basically develop those neural networks on chips which greatly improves the processing speed and reduces energy costs," he adds.

He said that companies like IBM are working on the development of technology which is modelled on the neuro networks of the brain. It is early-stage technology and very much still in development, but it is considered a driver in the market.

Gartner's view is that AI exists in the virtual world as apps and analytics, and then in the physical world as things. "As an example the way that AI is being applied to existing apps and analytics is in packaging applications, so all of the major application vendors, like SAP and Oracle, are investing significantly in machine learning technologies and integrate that into their software," says Burke.

The major vendors in AI, including Google and AWS, are providing AI services that can be integrated into custom-developed applications, and AI is also slowly making its way into security operations solutions as well.

"What is perhaps new is we're seeing artificial intelligence in the virtual world enabling chatbots, virtual assistants of all kinds – virtual personal assistants, virtual customer assistants, virtual employee assistants and expert advisors, where we are using AI to augment experts and provide sometimes insightful views on things like cancer treatment plans, for example."

AI is also being built into consumer appliances, certainly industrial equipment and medical devices, and is also enabling new applications like smart robots, drones and driverless vehicles.

As Burke says, Africa has its own challenges but countries like South Africa compete in global markets and "so it is not a case where you can sit back and wait" because technologies like AI is already affecting markets.

The availability of relevant skills, for example people who have experience in developing machine language applications in different markets, remains a challenge - although not unique to Africa, and the people dynamic will continue to impact markets going forward.

"This is going to be a global problem, it is actually going to be an inhibitor for the development of these technologies over the medium term because there is simply is not the people available with the expertise in these technologies. I think it represents a great opportunity, it is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog," said Burke.

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