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New study: Where would SA be in 2030 if government adopted artificial intelligence today

A presenter talks during a session at the AI Expo Africa. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency

A presenter talks during a session at the AI Expo Africa. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency

Published Jun 8, 2021

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A presenter talks during a session at the AI Expo Africa. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA/African News Agency

A new study done by a University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) graduate of the MPhil in Futures Studies programme explores how artificial intelligence (AI) could improve South Africans lives.

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Jan Hofmeyr’s research looks at how the quality of services the government provides to citizens would be greatly improved if AI were a reality. He said: “In light of rapid advances in the AI field, decision-making is gradually being surrendered to machine learning algorithms. The government will in coming years have to concern themselves with the scope and nature of their mandates to regulate and exploit AI for the greater good of societies as they enter an era that is broadly referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Hofmeyr also outlines four scenarios of where SA could be in 2030 if future technologies such as AI were embrace or not:

1. Everyone’s China: An illiberal democracy with a disjointed approach to its use of an expanding digital ecosystem. It uses AI to expand the services and economic agency of the majority of South Africans, but the ethics that it applies in doing so may fall foul of the constitutional imperatives for transparency and accountability.

2. Estonia of the South: A democratic state, with digitally literate citizens, which leveraged AI strategically in a transparent, ever-expanding digital ecosystem, by increasing access to services, ensuring resource efficiency within the public service, and enabling individual economic agency for the majority of South Africans.

3. Paradise Islands: A democratic state where the benefits of AI only accrue to large corporates and affluent individuals. In the absence of a long-term strategy to expand the reach of digital infrastructure and the government’s technical capacity to make the state more efficient and accessible, the divide between rich and poor becomes starker.

4. Hola Venezuela: A bankrupt, notionally democratic state, which governs in parallel and sometimes at the order of non-state actors that have filled the governance voids left by its weakness. The internet is censored and AI expenditure prioritises surveillance and predatory technologies, aimed at keeping the desperate masses at bay.

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Hofmeyr said the Estonia of the South was the most desirable outcome: “It imagines a situation where values such as individual liberty and transparency and accountability are transferred into the digital sphere. Its focus is to enhance the agency of citizens to reach their potential.”

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