File image: Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab. (IOL).
CAPE TOWN - In 2017, the United Arab Emirates appointed a 27-year-old Omar Bin Sultan Al Olama as the country’s first minister for artificial intelligence (AI). This appointment was announced via Twitter by the UAE Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

This appointment signalled that the UAE is serious about technology and using it to advance its society. It highlighted the UAE’s ambition to be at the forefront of the global technological revolution. The appointment of a minister of artificial intelligence by the UAE should trigger other countries to ask themselves the following question: Does every country need a minister for AI?

The appointment of an AI minister is critical if countries are to remain relevant in the future. Other countries have embraced AI by setting up institutions that drive their own AI initiatives. Countries such as Canada and China are leading in this regard.

Canada’s charge in becoming a world leader in AI research has been taken up by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has spoken publicly about the country’s ambitions at forums.

Currently, Canada’s efforts are mostly concentrated in Montreal, home to the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms and world-renowned AI researchers such as Yoshua Bengio and Aaron Courville.

Trudeau has taken up the mantle of investing in “quantum, AI, robotics and high-value, innovative, groundbreaking areas”.

It can be argued that Trudeau himself has taken up the responsibility of leading the country’s AI efforts.

China has outstripped all nations in investment in technology, creating AI talent and issuing supportive government policies, and is home to the world’s biggest AI companies.

The country has a rapidly growing pool of AI talent, publishes the most frequently cited research papers and has the best universities (Tsinghua University and Huazhong University of Science and Technology) that can compete on a global level. China has the data, the talent, the money, the regulatory environment and the government vision to become an AI superpower.

South Africa has also shown some signs of preparing itself for the future.

Recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed the Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) consisting of 30 members sourced from academia, business and other sectors in society.

South Africa has established the Commission on 4IR to ensure the country effectively harnesses rapid advances in information and communications technology for inclusive growth and social development.

This is a great start towards preparing for the future, but is not enough to practically prepare for the future.

The approach by the UAE of appointing a ministry dedicated to AI is by far the best approach to ensure that the AI vision is developed and implemented across the government.

The appointment of a dedicated minister for such an important field ensures that there’s the necessary focus for implementation as opposed to just talking. The youthfulness of the leader in this portfolio also ensures that solutions are developed with the future in mind, and based on the latest understanding of technology.

As South Africa makes bold decisions about the future, the type of ministries that are put in place are more important than the individuals. ministry of artificial intelligence could propel South Africa into the future.

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-In-chief of The Infonomist. He founded Kaya Labs, a technology platform for the development of previously disadvantaged youth in technology. You can follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko

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