The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has welcomed the partnership of global technology giant Microsoft with the University of Pretoria to explore how South Africa can make the most of artificial intelligence (AI) for growth, development, and inclusion.

On 18 March, Microsoft launched its latest policy innovation centre in partnership the University of Pretoria's Future Africa campus. The company has launched similar facilities in several countries so far, providing a forum to foster dialogue and discussion on policy issues that affect the biggest development challenges in the world today.

At the centre of the dialogue is how to embrace digital transformation, and the role artificial intelligence can play to help the region thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The policy innovation centres are physical state-of-the-art centres designed to bring together stakeholders, whether physically or virtually, and draw upon the talents of government, academia, industry and policy experts.

Delivering the keynote address at Monday's launch, the Director-General of Science and Technology, Dr Phil Mjwara, said one of the key roles of government was to create a climate in which individuals, businesses and other social institutions could thrive.

"This includes creating an enabling legislative, policy or regulatory framework for the development of new innovative technologies and services," said Dr Mjwara.

Referring to the recent Cabinet approval of the country's new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Mjwara said that Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and their impact were at the heart of the policy.  The DG said the new White Paper deals with exploiting these new sources of growth, without neglecting the human impact of technology innovation.

"We are pleased that, like our White Paper on STI, your White Paper has a deliberate focus on Africa and also recognises the importance of the ethical application of AI and the role of civil society," said the DG.

The DG said everything around humans was being digitised.  New sensors were being developed with DST funding, ranging from satellite sensors that measure atomic oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere to micro-seismic sensors in mining to give an early warning of rockfalls. 

"This multitude of sensed data streams, combined in ways not possible before, allows us to discover new insights from the data and apply these insights through Technology and Innovation, with People and in Systems," he said.

While this new digital age was promising many opportunities, inequality represented the greatest societal concern associated with this new revolution. For example, the largest beneficiaries of innovation tend to be the innovators and investors, which explains the rising gap in wealth.

Globally, one of largest malicious cyber-attacks occurred in India, where a government identity document database reportedly suffered multiple breaches that potentially compromised the records of all 1,1 billion citizens

Wishing the centre success in is endeavours, the DG said artificial intelligence was now a fact of life and the developing world must continue to find proactive ways of responding to the risks and opportunities they presented.

Microsoft's General Counsel Mike Yeh said Microsoft always approached technology holistically, considering the changes it brought and the consequences, many of which were positive and added value to society.

"At Microsoft we have been talking for some years about the democratisation of technology. How do we ensure that, as the world advances and advanced technology becomes incorporated in everyday lives, that everyone is able to benefit?" asked Yeh.

Yen said these were the driving forces behind the multinational company's idea to establish policy innovation centres, particularly as highly regulated industries like financial services, healthcare and public sector workloads were established before the existence of the Internet.

"There is clearly a need and opportunity to figure out how to modernise those regulations in a way that is responsible, bouncing out the potential benefits of technology and also ensuring that the data remains private, and that customers and individuals can control that data," he said.

He said Microsoft was particularly pleased to drive these conversations, especially about the way these new technologies would affect people's rights, and whether they were fair, reliable and safe. 

"We see many opportunities and challenges on how to get the regulatory environment correct and we look forward to working with the University of Pretoria and government to really bring people together, to drive the conversation and ultimately find the solutions to ensure that technology is used fairly and is used for good," said Yen.

The Acting Director of Future Africa Campus, Prof. Bernard Slippers, said the most important goal of the university was to turn the knowledge gained here towards creating a better world.

"Part of the impact that we make is, we believe, through connections in our universities to break down barriers between our disciplines," said Slippers.

He said the university realised the importance of partnerships that it would build beyond the academic sphere and welcomed the launch of the policy innovation centre, which he said embodied digital transformation.