The whole world is aware by now of the benefits of artificial intelligence and how it can transform businesses. A report commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Ernst & Young on AI maturity in the Middle East and Africa region, found that at least 46% of South African companies are piloting artificial intelligence and are showing more and more interest in deploying the new technology.

Artificial intelligence is the broad term that encompasses numerous technologies which organizations can leverage to improve productivity and efficiency. According to the report, South African companies are experimenting with different technologies including Chatbots, Robotic Process Automation and Advanced Analytics and about 67% of them considered machine learning as the most useful AI technology, followed by smart robotics and biometrics.

Industry experts believe that South Africa needed to have a culture of experimentation to be able to embrace AI. “Many AI experts argued that it was not simply a lack of technical skills that slowed the progress of AI, but also a greater need for a culture of experimentation. Though AI is in its early stages of development in South Africa, it bodes well for AI maturity in the country that businesses are actively experimenting with exciting new AI use cases,” said Lillian Barnard, managing director at Microsoft.

In fact, the report shows that South Africa is highly investing in artificial intelligence, which has made it one of three countries in the MEA region with the highest AI investment. Based on transactions made from 2008 – 2018, South Africa has invested $1.6 billion, following the UAE and Turkey with investments of, respectively, $2.1 billion and $3.4 billion. The bulk of this investment went towards IoT and social media, followed by planning, scheduling and optimization, as well as smart mobile.

AI is one of the priorities of 42% of South African companies, however, not one company confirmed that it is the most important one. That can be linked to the fact that they believe the competencies required to achieve AI maturity are still lacking. A third of companies consider themselves highly competent when it comes to data management, however, leadership capability is one of the areas that South African businesses still need to enhance.

Moreover, some concerns were raised regarding the issue of human-machine interaction which highlights an important challenge for South African businesses which is combining artificial intelligence with emotional intelligence. The integration of AI outputs with operational processes and the people involved in those processes is to be tackled.

However, despite all the challenges that South African companies have to face, the outlook for the country and the whole MEA region is highly positive. 96% of local businesses expect to gain significant financial benefits by using AI solutions to optimize their operations. The top use cases for AI listed by companies surveyed include automation (83%) and prediction (70%). Use cases in question include a broad range of applications, from increasing employee productivity to predicting customer churn or consumer conversion rates and proactively managing machinery downtime.

While 83% of organisations report direct involvement at the C-suite level, this number is significantly lower (29%) at a non-managerial level. Currently, 54% of companies rate impact on personnel as the top business risk in implementing AI. Fears of AI replacing workforce and leading to job losses are quite high.

“To realize the true value of AI, organisations need to understand the scope and risks specific to them. Then they need to define the value and capabilities needed to integrate, activate and incorporate intelligent, robotic and autonomous capabilities. We hope that this study, which we are proud to have partnered with our alliance partner Microsoft, opens doors for South African organisations to use AI to improve business processes and accessibility for non-technical users,” said Brian Lewkowicz, Lead on Intelligent Automation at EY Africa.

“When companies opt for a ‘people first, technology second’ approach, human capabilities are extended and people can spend more time on creative and strategic endeavors so, ultimately, companies achieve more,” Barnard adds.  


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