As the fourth Industrial Revolution ramps up, Africa is determined to keep up.

‘We’re not going to have the rest of the world providing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions that are applicable to Africa. For that reason, we need to have home-grown research coming out of our own labs.’ So said NITheCS Associate Prof Bruce Watson (Stellenbosch University), whose interview was broadcast by CNN channel ‘Inside Africa’ in September 2023.

Also part of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research (CAIR) and chair of the CAIR division at Stellenbosch University, Prof Watson believes AI is making great strides in South Africa.

‘In general, AI is for the betterment of people, as opposed to some of the potentially bad outcomes of AI. We have a number of problems that can’t be tackled by enough humans at once. Also, we have reached the point of enough computing power that we can do things, in some cases, better than humans can.’

He said AI research in South Africa is very comparable to the rest of the world, but scaled down. People work on a range of AI approaches, from deeply theoretical problems to very applied applications of AI. ‘The only thing constraining us, ultimately, is the money required for large amounts of computing power.’

He continued, ‘AI as applied to the African continent is very exciting. We have a tremendous amount of data that is available, which is typically not studied or available in many other continents. We can thus come up with solutions that are very competitive compared to other parts of the world and very impactful for Africa.’

Research projects

Prof Watson’s department tackles a lot, from how to grow food on Mars to improving food security on Earth. He currently leads research at Thelema Mountain Vineyards in Stellenbosch, one of CAIR’s partners for AI in wine science.

‘Factors such as soil performance, weather performance of the farm, viticulture and wine production lead to specific wine tasting profiles,’ he explained. ‘Farmers would like repeatability, a certain amount of cost management and to achieve the best possible wine production.’

He believes using AI can bring a certain amount of modelling and predictability to this. In the long run, this will yield better wines, wines that are cheaper to produce and an amount of reproducibility year on year, which is currently very difficult for farmers to achieve.

Tilapia research

Prof Watson also touched on research relating to animal or plant growth that is being conducted at an experimental farm in Stellenbosch.

‘Tilapia are one of the more popular ways of providing protein in under-resourced countries in Africa. Optimising the tilapia growth process is therefore very important. This includes how to get the fish to grow as large as possible and prevent tilapia death through providing optimal water conditions. We are using AI to look at all the historical data and also to optimize the growth of the fish.’

Covid research

Another key area of research that Prof Watson oversees focuses on Covid.

‘Our Covid research projects are based on significant amounts of data. We can vary our AI models to more clearly understand the various factors that go into modern Covid. Using AI, we can find causal links potentially, and plan for future pandemics and diseases of similar types.’

Sharing his views on AI, Prof Watson believes ‘the potential of the role that AI can play in Africa is limitless. We are also entering a decade or two of tremendous growth opportunities.’

He is excited about pulling students into this field. As more computing power becomes available – and greener computing power – he believes many exciting application areas will also arise from students who have grown up in an AI environment.

View the full CNN interview here.