Children across the world will soon be able to get to grips with artificial intelligence by reading a series of books on the subject in their native language, says University of Johannesburg Vice-chancellor and deputy chairperson of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.
Marwala said the books, My First A.I. Book Series, which introduce children of all ages to the foundational concepts of AI and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), are being translated into 15 languages, including Zulu, Tswana, Venda, Portuguese, Hindi, German and Italian, among others.
Marwala and fellow UJ academics Nicky Roberts and Fernando Buarque are co-authors of the books. The vice-chancellor said many seemed to assume AI was not a subject for children. "I used to assume that too."
He was named in April by President Cyril Ramaphosa as one of the members of the commission tasked with driving the government's 4IR strategy.
In his State of the Nation address in Parliament on February 7, Ramaphosa said revolutionary advances in technology were reshaping the way people lived and worked.
Unless we understand the nature of the profound change that is reshaping our world, and unless we readily embrace the opportunities it presents, the promise of our nation's birth will forever remain unfulfilled," he said.
While many have taken up the challenge in South Africa, Marwala said harnessing the benefits of the 4IR for Africa as a whole, however, might be more complex, although there were pockets of excellence in Mozambique, Congo, Kenya and Rwanda.
"I believe that 4IR is going to be about data – whether it is the data of people, genetic data, or the data that drives 4IR itself. The question we must ask is, are African countries obtaining data? The answer, I am afraid, is no.
"The biggest data capturers in Africa are US multinationals. When it comes to data collection or management, Africa would score three on a scale of one to 10. This figure is alarming."
One of the big problems with the 4IR was that "the winner takes all" in terms of development, he said. "In South Africa, we had a local search engine, called Anansi, which aggressively gathered local data, but it was no match for Google – it folded in 2011.
"Few people can name the world's number two search engine, Microsoft's Bing. Even they are struggling; there is no room for a number two."
The fact that web giants did not spend time dealing with local issues – for instance, Google Maps did not pronounce names on local routes well – presented an opportunity.
"If we produced our own domestic maps with the right pronunciations, we would have an edge over Google.
"The key to competition is to address challenges locally," he said.
Leaders in Africa, in small but encouraging numbers, were placing technology at the heart of political and economic reforms.
"One of the first things Africa needs is to have leaders who understand technology. In Rwanda, the high-speed internet makes it obvious President Paul Kagame understands technology. In Kenya, the number of 4IR start-ups, and the launching of digital currency, makes it clear President Uhuru Kenyatta understands technology.
"In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa is the first leader who has placed the 4IR at the forefront of his strategy, and he is a big advocate for science and technology.
"Our leaders must understand technology – they must be developmental in their outlook. The African continent now has 1.3 billion people – it is the fastest-growing continent in terms of population. You are not going to be able to deal with the issues of population explosion, food security or urbanisation without 4IR technology."
Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, co-ordinator of the government's 4IR programme, said in July that the 4IR presented a unique opportunity to harness individual and collective talents to address economic and social challenges. She said recent studies by Accenture and the World Economic Forum estimated that the aggregate value that could be derived by South Africa from the digital transformation of society and the economy was about R5 trillion.
"More specifically, this economic value-addition would result in roughly 4 million new jobs," she said.
While Marwala and his team are spreading the 4IR message to children, the minister is driving an Internet for All Initiative, translating content from Wikipedia into the 11 official languages. Xhosa and Swazi translations have been completed, and pupils in the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga are using the content.
"Indeed, the language that we use influences the way that we think and act. Therefore, making content readily available in multiple languages enables a connected society," she said.
*This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) on 13 Oct 2019