Mention the words ‘artificial intelligence’ to most people and the chances are they will start to think about robots or other ideas synonymous with science fiction.

However, rather than being something that might emerge in the distant future, it is fair to say that AI is already very much science fact – so much so that an expert in the area has issued a call for South Africa to do more to play a role in the development of the technology.

A key recommendation

Writing in a column for the Mail & Guardian, University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor and AI specialist Tshilidzi Marwala revealed how the creation of a national institute, which would examine the technology, is one of his key recommendations for ensuring the country is ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

He outlined that he felt the institute would be a collaboration between public and private sector organisations, while he added that it would have to decide where its priorities would lie in terms of AI’s three key aspects – the theory behind it, the algorithmic element and its application.

Under his proposals, the institute would work with partners based across the world, as well as other African organisations including the Deep Learning Indaba. He added that the continent’s huge population, which is expected to reach two billion by around 2050, presented “a huge opportunity”.

Playing a role in many areas

Marwala’s sentiments certainly make sense considering just how ubiquitous artificial intelligence has become across a range of aspects of modern life. Indeed, with his article, he touches upon several notable issues, including how the Roman Catholic Church, IBM and Microsoft have recently joined forces to examine the ethics around AI.

The concept simply touches so many areas, with Eric Vardon recently writing for Forbes about how it can assist with personalisation and campaign monitoring within the marketing world. The casino industry for example, has embraced innovations like mobile technology in recent years and the sector is another which is now looking at AI. eConnectGlobal explains that artificial intelligence is helping casino operators in a number of ways, including by tracking players, monitoring transactions and providing security alerts.

Finally, a recent report has put a spotlight on how AI is expected to become a valuable part of the manufacturing world too. The study by Meticulous Research revealed that the AI in the manufacturing market is expected to be worth $27 billion by 2027, with the use of the technology creating new opportunities for businesses to reshape operations and boost their profitability.

A tantalising glimpse

With AI already having an impact in so many different sectors and parts of the world, it is clear that the time is right for South Africa to consider how it can get involved in driving the issue forward in the months and years ahead.

Tshilidzi Marwala’s ideas are a tantalising glimpse into how that could work and it will be intriguing to see whether the country can push forward and build on his vision.