Is AI of societal benefit? Report says yes

  • BCG, Microsoft SA, and Wits Business School have released a report detailing the societal benefits of AI for South Africa.
  • The report finds that the societal benefits of AI for SA will be felt across four main sectors – healthcare, education, financial inclusion, and agriculture.
  • In order for this to be achieved, however, a regulatory framework must be put together.

Generative AI continues to be a hotly discussed topic across a myriad industries as business look for ways to leverage the burgeoning technology to their advantage. While we are yet to see how AI will fully take shape in South Africa, will the push to embrace the technology hold societal benefit too?

This is what a recent report published by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in collaboration with Microsoft South Africa and Wits Business School aimed to unpack.

The report highlights the fact that generative AI, although still in its early stages is maturing rapidly and is on track to become one of the most transformative technologies of our time.

“AI represents a novel class of technologies that, notwithstanding many inherent challenges, immediately offers us opportunities to tackle very real problems locally, in tangible ways,” explains Dr. Martin Bekker of Wits University, regarding the potential of AI for societal benefit.

Presenting the report, Nihmal Marrie, MD and partner at BCG noted that given South Africa’s distinctive set of challenges, the societal benefit of AI would be felt strongly across four key sectors – healthcare, education, financial inclusion, and agriculture.

Looking closer at each of the above sectors, the report identified areas where generative AI can have an impact.

“In the healthcare sector, this can include freeing up administrative time for doctors and nurses by transcribing and summarising consultations and automatically updating patient files or serving as a 24/7 health-education resource assisting with disseminating alerts and regular advice, regularly and in various languages,” the report posits.

With generative AI proving slightly divisive to date in the education space, BCG’s report highlights that through natural language processing, AI-powered tutors could assist learners with better access to resources, which may assist in, “mitigating teacher shortages, especially in public schools,” according to the strategic management consulting firm.

Shifting to financial inclusion, generative AI may present an opportunity to expand access as it can make financial services and solutions more easily available to customers. Examples of this would be supporting, “under-banked people through a conversational chatbot and expedite the drafting of legal documents.”

“Furthermore, AI enables engagement with clients in their native languages, helping them gain access to essential financial literacy and services,” the report adds.

Lastly, in terms of the agricultural, which is a pivotal industry for South Africa, generative AI could assist when it comes to the challenges presented by climate change and under-productivity.

“By using sensors, drones and satellites, farmers can collect real-time data on their crops and when analysed by AI algorithms, maximise crop yields and determine optimal planting times,” BCG theorieses, with local startups like Aerobotics doing so already.

While there is indeed some hesitancy when it comes to the tangible value that generative AI will present for all South Africans, not just those on the higher end of the financial spectrum, it looks like the overwhelming feeling regarding its ability for societal benefit is positive among the companies involved with this report.

“We believe that when you create technologies that can change the world, you must also ensure that they are used responsibly. When we apply principles like transparency, fairness and accountability, a balance between extracting value from AI, and ensuring data protection, ethical usage and compliance can be created,” enthuses Ayanda Ngcebetsha, director for Data & AI Commercial Solutions at Microsoft SA.

“By leveraging AI there are unique opportunities for South Africa to address key areas of historic inequity.  Collaborative action is needed now to unlock these opportunities while also calibrating potential,” concludes Marrie.

[Image – Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash]


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