Artificial Intelligence – an existential threat to South Africa
While technological advances like Artificial Intelligence (AI) are likely to give rise to a number of opportunities for both economic and social development, they come with some risks – even more so for developing countries such as South Africa. AI involves the theory and development of computer systems that are able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as decision-making and visual perception. Ralph Hamann, a professor and research director at the UCT Graduate School of Business, has outlined three of the biggest risks that artificial intelligence could potentially pose to South Africa and other developing countries.
With South Africa’s current high rate on unemployment and already lacking quality education systems and skills, there is a fear that introducing AI in to do jobs that humans could do would create even more job losses that the country cannot afford. With the advances in AI technology and the increased capabilities of the machines, it is also possible that there would be a decrease in the prospect of new kinds of jobs as the AI technology would be able to fulfil a number of different roles. Hamann has also warned that these new technologies are not just replacing jobs, but are now also causing disruptions and enabling restructuring of entire industries, similar to the way in which Uber has disrupted and transformed the taxi industry in South Africa.
AI and other technologies are more likely to increase the concentration of wealth because they are more likely to be made use of by wealthy individuals, which will, in turn, further increase the returns to capital widening the gap between the elites’ productive capacity and the productive capacity of everyone else. These advantages of capital are not just due to increasing productivity, but also because they allow for new business models that could control or dominate entire sub-sectors and suppress competition. Hamann warns that “For instance, it could become possible for a single company to control large fleets of automated vehicles in one or more large areas.”. It then falls to the state to keep up these developments and respond effectively and many governments in developing countries are not giving these developments enough attention.
One of the biggest risks in AI today, globally, is that the AI algorithms reflect and perpetuate the biases of those who create them. An algorithm is a process or set of rules that are followed in calculations and other problem-solving operations. This has been seen in the difficulties voice recognition software faces in recognising different accents. While the promise is that AI technologies will enable such systems to learn to address these issues, the learning process itself may be influenced by racial, gender or other prejudices. AI algorithms are almost entirely developed in developed countries, and thus they may not reflect the context and priorities of developing countries. When considering AI in its whole, it is important to look at both the positive and negative effects it may have on a developing country such as South Africa. According to Hamman, “It would be even better if developing countries became more engaged in the development of new technological systems from the get-go.”