All for one and one for all

19 April 2018

During the 2018 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa was outspoken about technology and the desperate need that South Africa has for the development of this sector as it can bring about economic growth and job creation.  

Where do we start?

How do we go about improving the technology industry so that it can be an enabler of better business? 

While South Africa does have major companies that form the back bone of the economy, most of the country’s citizens are employed in the small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) sector. A big enabler of this sector is technology, in particular data services, which keeps the wheels of industry turning. 

However, data tariffs in South Africa are exorbitant, some say the most costly in the world. This is something that President Ramaphosa said that he would address as a matter of urgency. 

Parisian splendour

Because technology is an ever changing beast, investment into the sector needs to be done early and in such a way that it is all encompassing.  I recently read an article on which shows what France has done in this regard. 

The article pointed out that French President Emmanuel Macron is about to unveil a bold plan to make France a centre of reference for artificial intelligence research, aimed at drawing homegrown and foreign talent in a field dominated by US and Chinese players. 

Serious backing

The article added that the proposals, which Macron's office said would be backed by €1.5 billion in public funds, will follow months of interviews with artificial intelligence (AI) experts worldwide by star mathematician Cedric Villani who is now a lawmaker in Macron's Republic On The Move (LREM) party. 

Villani's report, presented at the end f March, calls for doubling the pay of young researchers and engineers, and tripling the number of students specialising in artificial intelligence over the next three years. 

Sweet talking

The article pointed out that Macron recently hosted a dinner for about a dozen AI specialists and industry leaders convened as part of a conference being held in Paris the next day. 

Both Fujitsu of Japan and South Korean giant Samsung announced that they would set up AI research centres in France, while Google said it would sponsor a dedicated AI chair at the country's elite Polytechnique engineering school. 

Microsoft said it would invest $30 million in France, including at its Microsoft AI school, which opened in March, would be targeting 400 000 students over the next three years. 

Digital champions 

The article points out that the AI push dovetails with Macron's pledge to shake up the French economy and make the country more attractive to foreign investors, which has included business tax cuts and eased labour laws. 

Samsung's research centre, its third largest in the world, will be headed by Luc Julia, the French researcher who co-invented Apple's voice-activated assistant Siri before decamping for Samsung. 

Industry experts say that while France produces engineering talent widely sought after by companies and universities around the world, few French start-ups have managed to become top players in cutting-edge technologies. 

To avoid diluting its efforts and resources, Villani's report urges the government to concentrate on four sectors: defence and security, transport, the environment, and health. 

Collaborative encouragement

The article pointed out that Macron is also expected to propose a European framework for facilitating cooperation between researchers and sharing data, while addressing growing concerns about privacy breaches or the replacement of thousands of jobs by machines. 

"We want France and Europe to be digital champions in the service of humanity. That means for example a general rule on data protection," France's Digital Minister Mounir Mahjoubi told French daily Les Echos.


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