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MISTRA lecture: Professor Marwala highlight the perils and welfare effects of AI

On Wednesday, December 6, 2023, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg (UJ), hosted the MISTRA Annual Lecture featuring Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. As the former Vice Chancellor and Principal of UJ, Prof Marwala, now the Under Secretary of the United Nations and Rector of the UN University, delivered a lecture on the perils and welfare effects of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

(L-R) Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi UJ Vice- Chancellor and Principal, Executive Director of MISTRA, Joel Netshitenzhe and UN University Rector Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/University of Johannesburg
(L-R) Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi UJ Vice- Chancellor and Principal, Executive Director of MISTRA, Joel Netshitenzhe and UN University Rector Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/University of Johannesburg

Held at the Ubuntu Chambers on the University’s Auckland Park Kingsway Campus, the hybrid event brought together MISTRA leadership, senior UJ officials, and various stakeholders. UJ’s Vice Chancellor and Principal, Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, welcomed attendees, emphasising Prof Marwala’s impactful legacy at UJ and his vital role in shaping the discourse around AI.

He underscored the need for a holistic approach to AI, considering societal, ethical, and environmental factors.

Professor Mpedi giving welcome remarks during the 2023 MISTRA Annual Lecture. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/University of Johannesburg
Professor Mpedi giving welcome remarks during the 2023 MISTRA Annual Lecture. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/University of Johannesburg

“I find this year’s theme particularly fascinating, given my specialisation in social welfare. We stand at the brink of both promise and peril, facing crucial decisions to harness AI for positive impact. It’s essential to collaboratively shape an intentional and inclusive societal future amid ongoing technological innovation. Beyond its capabilities, AI requires a holistic approach, recognising the intricate interplay of societal, ethical, and environmental factors. The convergence of AI and the achievements of the UN Sustainable Development Goals hinges on this understanding, ” said Prof Mpedi.

Prof Marwala traced his AI journey from its early days, drawing parallels between AI and engineering.  Exploring the basics of AI, he shared insights and related his grandmother’s traditional clay pot-making process to engineering principles and she would have benefitted from using AI.

Professor Marwala speaking at the MISTRA Annual Lecture that took place at the Auckland Park Kingsway Campus. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/University of Johannesburg
Professor Marwala speaking at the MISTRA Annual Lecture that took place at the Auckland Park Kingsway Campus. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/University of Johannesburg

Discussing the way forward for AI in South Africa, Prof Marwala proposed implementing 4IR recommendations, investing in multidisciplinary education, creating funding mechanisms for AI-related industries, developing AI laws and regulations, and supporting international AI developments.

Respondents to the lecture included Dr Refiloe Lepere, a renowned theatre director and black feminist playwright, and Arthur Goldstuck, an award-winning writer and technology commentator.

The collaboration between UJ and MISTRA in hosting this annual lecture series aims to provide intellectual discourse on global issues, stimulate public debate, and foster policy dialogue.

The event showcased the growing impact of AI on society, with Executive Director of MISTRA, Joel Netshitenzhe, expressing gratitude for the partnership with UJ. The lecture highlighted the transformative potential of AI in improving the human condition.

“Today’s conversation has revealed a phenomenon I believed was a few decades away and that is unfolding in real-time. This realisation prompted MISTRA to host this lecture. The impact of complex systems and their terminology seems to be infiltrating every aspect of human life, both overtly and subtly.  Prof Marwala’s evaluation is simultaneously concerning and reassuring, affirming that AI has the potential to enhance the human condition,” he concluded.

Watch the lecture here: 

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