AI across Africa and the Middle East: The Microsoft view

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic around the world. A new report from Microsoft offers fresh insights into the way this new technology is seen, and is being deployed, by businesses in South Africa and across the region.

According to a new study of AI in business across Africa and the Middle East, commissioned by Microsoft and carried out by EY, AI is an important topic of discussion in 80 per cent of C-suites across the region: but the majority of companies in the study hadn't yet gone further than piloting its use. Twenty-four of the companies surveyed were based in South Africa, and of the respondents 39 per cent worked at C-suite level and a further 52 per cent in senior management.

The relatively low uptake of AI by business across the region may be due to the fact that organisations, excusably given media coverage of the subject, tend to focus on the headlining application of AI: Machine Learning. This was defined for the purposes of the study as "A computer's ability to ‘learn' from data, either supervised or non-supervised". Some 61 per cent of companies in the study stated that they were using or planning to use Machine Learning, a much higher proportion than was the case with any other sort of AI deployment. The study authors added:

Of the different types of machine learning, the most common is supervised machine learning, where software is fed structured data and finds patterns that can be used to understand and interpret new observations.

Or in other words, relatively ordinary data analysis is the most common business "AI" application across the region. The next most common application, seen in the plans of 37 per cent of the respondents, was Smart Robotics: defined as "The combination of AI and robots to perform advanced tasks compared to traditional non-intelligent robots". Again, this sounds like relatively conventional process automation with a new label.

Chatbots: Handle with care

But there are other things that modern technology can deliver under the AI banner. One often-popular option is the use of Virtual Agents - for instance, software chatbots which can be used to handle interactions with customers, potentially far more cheaply than hiring customer service or sales people to do it.

Only 32 per cent of respondents had virtual agents as part of their plans, however. Even where the savings were potentially very important, some of the business people in the study felt that this aspect of AI is one that needs to be handled very carefully indeed. Johannesburg-headquartered telco MTN, which is active across Africa and for whom call centres are a major cost, is keen to move forward in this area but is well aware of the risks. According to the study:

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