CAPE TOWN – At least 46 percent of South African companies are actively piloting artificial intelligence (AI) within their organisations, according to the AI Maturity Report in South Africa commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Ernst & Young (EY).
The report released on Monday states that AI pilots and experimentation were now prolific across South African companies, with businesses showing a willingness to embrace AI and experiment using new technology.
The research found that businesses are experimenting with a range of different technologies, including Chatbots, Robotic Process Automation and Advanced Analytics. About 67 percent of South African organisations pinpointed machine learning as the AI technology most useful to them, followed by smart robotics and biometrics.
Lillian Barnard, Managing Director at Microsoft said many AI experts argued that it was not simply a lack of technical skills that slowed the progress of AI, but also a greater need for a culture of experimentation.
“Though AI is in its early stages of development in South Africa, it bodes well for AI maturity in the country that businesses are actively experimenting with exciting new AI use cases,” said Barnard.
One of three top investors in the region
South Africa’s overall investment in AI is significant, with $1.6 billion (R24bn) invested over the past ten years. In fact, together with the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, South Africa was one of three countries in the region with the highest AI investment activity in the last decade. The bulk of this investment went towards IoT and social media, followed by planning, scheduling and optimisation, as well as smart mobile.
High expectations for the future
When it comes to the future benefits of AI, companies across the MEA region are highly positive – and perhaps none more so than South African organisations. 96 percent of local businesses expect to gain significant financial benefits by using AI solutions to optimise their operations. The top use cases for AI listed by companies surveyed include automation (83 percent) and prediction (70 percent). Use cases in question include a broad range of applications, from increasing employee productivity to predicting customer churn or consumer conversion rates and proactively managing machinery downtime.
The road to AI maturity
Though 42 percent of South African businesses say AI is one of their digital priorities, not a single company indicated that it was their most important priority. In fact, there are a number of core competencies South African companies feel they still need to address in terms of AI maturity. While data management scored well as a competency in South Africa (almost a third of companies consider themselves highly competent), businesses typically rate themselves as only moderately competent when it comes to leadership capability. Combining AI with emotional intelligence is another significant challenge for South African companies, with many respondents citing concerns around human-machine interaction, and how AI outputs should be integrated with operational processes and the people involved in those processes.
The AI agenda needs to filter down
Perhaps most importantly, discussions around AI need to take place across all levels of South African businesses. While 83 percent of organisations report direct involvement at the C-suite level, this number is significantly lower (29 percent) at a non-managerial level. Currently, 54 percent of companies rate impact on personnel as the top business risk in implementing AI. While South Africa’s unemployment rates are high, understanding of AI is low. This typically means that much of the workforce’s excitement around AI is quickly replaced by fear of job losses.
Brian Lewkowicz, Lead on Intelligent Automation at EY Africa said to realise the true value of AI, organisations needed to understand the scope and risks specific to them. Then they needed to define the value and capabilities needed to integrate, activate and incorporate intelligent, robotic and autonomous capabilities.
“We hope that this study, which we are proud to have partnered with our alliance partner Microsoft, opens doors for South African organisations to use AI to improve business processes and accessibility for non-technical users,” said Lewkowicz.
Barnard said Microsoft had always believed that AI strategy should be designed with people at the centre. “When companies opt for a ‘people first, technology second’ approach, human capabilities are extended and people can spend more time on creative and strategic endeavours so, ultimately, companies achieve more.”