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Meet The South African Scientists Spearheading AI Research

  • 4 min read

In a new episode of Inside Africa, CNN highlights the scientists in South Africa who have been spearheading the continent’s development of artificial intelligence technology across various sectors from health care to hospitality.

Dr Farzana Cassim is South Africa’s first female robotics surgeon and explains how the application of artificial intelligence in surgery is growing, “The future of medicine is, I would say, 100% connected to the development of technology. Everyone’s goal is to improve the lives of your fellow human beings. We could really just do so much, and so much more than we do now.”

Dr Cassim explains that while the technology is revolutionary, it won’t fully replace doctors, “Some people have expressed concerns about AI taking over the role of doctors. I’d like to say no, I don’t think that will happen. The aim is for it to be an adjunct for us to work together, for it to help. Whereas if you completely solely rely on AI, I don’t envisage that actually working out, because you still need common sense and you still need to be able to join all the dots.”

As a pioneer in her field, Dr Cassim’s journey has been one of ground-breaking ventures. She says she hopes to inspire more women, “I would like to get young people, especially young women, thinking that they can do anything. The world is open to them. I mean, I grew up in Lenasia, which is essentially a little Indian township in Johannesburg. And if I think back, I would never in a million years of thought that this is where I am today.”

Next, CNN travels to the Thelema Mountain vineyards in the Western Cape where Professor Bruce Watson is leading research into the use of AI in wine production. He speaks about the research, “One science is a very broad area in which we like to apply artificial intelligence, specifically because there are so many things that go into it. So, one of the factors is, for example, the soil performance of the various chemicals in the soil, the natural chemicals, added chemicals, the weather performance of the farm, the viticulture.”

He continues, “Using artificial intelligence, we can bring a certain amount of modelling and predictability to this, and this will, in the long run, certainly yield better wines, yield wines that are cheaper to produce and with a certain amount of reproducibility year on year, which is something that’s very difficult for farmers to achieve.”

As the Chair of Computational Thinking for Artificial Intelligence at Stellenbosch University, Professor Watson is a key proponent for AI’s use across the continent, “AI applied to the African continent is very exciting. We have a tremendous amount of data that’s available which is typically not studied or available in many other continents. So, for that reason, we can come up with solutions that are very competitive compared to other parts of the world and very impactful, of course, for Africa.” He sums up, “We’re not going to have the rest of the world providing artificial intelligence solutions that are applicable to Africa. So, for that reason, we need to actually have a lot of the homegrown research coming out of our own labs.”

Finally, data Scientist Diana Pholo Stone explains how AI is being used in hospitality and retail, including at international fast food chain Nando’s. Stone works at a business called Predictive Insights. She describes their work, “Predictive Insights is a company that uses machine learning and economics, and behavioural science, to help our customers to understand their data, get insight from their data. But we also create predictive models that can help them predict the future and then take action based on those predictions. So, we help free the time of let’s say a manager that would have to sit there and guess what’s gonna happen for the next three months based on a hunch.”

This tech is being used to bolster businesses from in the hospitality field. Stone talks about how the technology is being used at Nando’s, “We help Nando’s by providing them with forecasts that help them with operational decisions such as deciding how many staff to hire for a certain timeframe, so that they make sure that they hire enough people, but also they make sure that they do not waste any food.”

The role of AI in Africa is on the rise. Stone concludes, “In Africa I like the use of AI, because I feel that if we were left behind with the other revolutions, we may not be left behind with this specific revolution. Because we have phones, there’s a widespread use of internet, so we can actually take advantage of this, and we can use it in so many fields.”