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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Wits announces team to advance AI research in Africa

Wits University announced its team that will advance Africa’s AI initiative, Cirrus, a private sector led initiative bringing together academia and industry for the establishment of a world class artificial intelligence (AI) research and application capability for Africa.

The university team will be led by Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, with Professor Emeritus Barry Dwolatzky (project lead), Professor Nithaya Chetty, Dean of the Faculty of Science, as the champion for scientific engagement, and Dr Roy Forbes as the engagement coordinator.

The team will lead Africa’s effort to advance artificial intelligence research and its application across the continent, said Vilakazi.

He added that the university team will work closely with the Cirrus team that was announced at AI Expo Africa in 2020.

Wits team to lead AI research in Africa together with Cirrus AI

Priorities and challenges

Wits University said it focused on two priorities – academic and government.

“The academic aspect will support the establishment of the AI Africa (AIA) Consortium which provides the mechanism for bringing together academic and research institutions with a vested interested in the success and sustainability of Cirrus as Africa’s artificial intelligence effort. While the government focus will be on the adoption of Cirrus and the support for local academic and research institutions to invigorate AI research and to further the application of AI across various academic and industrial domains,” said Vilakazi.

Vilakazi said Cirrus is the largest and most complex undertaking of its kind in Africa’s history. However, the major challenges are neither financial nor technological.

“Rather, it is rallying the academic and research institutions in Africa for there to be a critical mass of research and applications that can fully leverage the capabilities that will be established with Cirrus,” said the vice-chancellor.

Most of the institutions participating in the AIA Consortium will be publicly funded academic institutions from across the continent.

With Wits University, Cirrus now has a leading university on the continent and a competent team to spearhead this important work.

South African and numerous other African universities currently host various academic and industrial research groups.

Gregg Barrett, Founder of Cirrus said these groups are involved in activities ranging from environmental and climate change research, medical research to materials research and energy storage development and design.

“Most if not all these existing research thrusts could benefit significantly from incorporating AI methodologies in their research activities. Furthermore, in working together as opposed to working in isolated groups the impact of the research will also be improved,” said Barrett.

He added that the establishment of Cirrus is a rallying call to the academic and research institutions in Africa for there to be a critical mass of research and applications that can fully leverage the capabilities that will be established with Cirrus.

“We at Wits have been on a long journey with Cirrus to bring all of the elements of this ambitious partnership into place. We are hoping to soon begin to sign up members of the AI Africa (AIA) Consortium and to see tangible benefits flowing from our engagement with Cirrus,” said Wits project lead Dwolatzky.

Dwolatzky said Wits University’s looks extend beyond the AIA Consortium and includes catalysing necessary strategic policy engagements with government to ensure impact on important research and societal objectives.

“The critical strategic steps that need to be taken in Africa have long been spoken about and now is the time for action. As Marc Andreessen recently pointed out, a takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic is that people need to think about their occupation and contribution to society. If you are not helping people directly, and your occupation does not lead to something being built and contributes little to society, you are failing yourself. Cirrus represents Africa’s collective opportunity to move past the talk and get building on solving real problems with significant societal impacts,” says Barrett.

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