Teach Artificial intelligence to all students

​Prof Tshilidzi Marwala recently penned an opionion piece which first appeared in the April edition of Forbes Africa magazine.

In February this year, telecommunications company Ericsson announced that it had launched AI-powered Energy Infrastructure Operations. This energy management system would leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to optimise energy consumption across network infrastructure for communications service providers. Not only does this reduce operating costs and carbon dioxide emissions, but it also maximises site availability. AI is a technology that capacitates machines to be intelligent.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has observed that increased energy consumption resulted in all-time high carbon emissions from fossil fuels in 2018. Even utility companies have cottoned on to AI and machine learning solutions. For instance, AI can improve the reliability of solar and wind power by analyzing meteorological data and utilising this information to make predictions.

AI is the most significant technology in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The 4IR is an industrial age where production is enhanced using intelligent machines, powered by AI. In the 4IR, people and technology are increasingly becoming one system. 4IR encompasses the entire wave of disruptive techniques such as 5G networks, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing and the internet of things (IoT). These substantial disruptions are affecting all industries and entire systems of production, management and governance and will undoubtedly transform all aspects of 21st-century life and society. For us to prepare our continent for this new wave, it is now becoming imperative for universities to begin to teach AI to all students irrespective of the courses they are studying.

Three elements are essential in teaching AI and these are the AI theory, AI coding and the AI applications. The AI theory explains the mechanism of AI, how it is evolving, its structures, and how to make AI learn. For people in humanity and social sciences, we can teach AI theory using visual aids and lots of verbal and accessible explanations. For people in science, engineering and technology (STEM) disciplines, we can teach AI theory using mathematics and algorithms. Algorithms are a set of instructions that programmers give to computers to perform particular instructions.

The AI coding is about how to take an AI concept and program it on a computer. For people in human and social sciences, there are already computer programs written that require minimal programming skills. For example, Microsoft Excel, which is relatively easy to use and is familiar to people in human and social sciences, now has AI features. For people in STEM disciplines, there are existing AI programs that require the ability to interface different AI modules to build robust AI applications. One of these AI programs is TensorFlow, which was developed by the company Google and is available for free. TensorFlow requires knowledge of a computer language such as Python and C++. Microsoft has its own AI suite called Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit.

AI applications are on how AI technology can be applied to various areas. For people in human and social sciences, we should teach them about various AI applications using just words and everyday activities. For example, we can use the tapping of claypots and listening to it to explain using AI to monitor the safety of buildings. For people in STEM disciplines, we should teach them how actually to build applications using data and AI programs.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has now introduced a compulsory course on AI for all students. This is to respond to the need that universities should shift their roles towards a focus on emerging requirements of business, governments and society, which increasingly necessitate knowledge of AI. Resolution Circle (RC), a Johannesburg-based company of UJ, is a technology company that is a conduit between industry and communities and provides 4IR short learning programmes in AI. RC’s goal is to upskill the people of Africa and thereby increase their competitiveness. More courses on AI offered by UJ include Masters in Artificial Intelligence, Masters in Financial Engineering, and a short learning program in Computational Intelligence.

To quote the 19th-century theologian John Henry Newman on defining the role of a university, “It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.” Let us offer Africans a clear view of AI.

Professor Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Read more: Coronavirus: The answers lie in the numbers


prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg
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