Changing The World Through AI

By Jessie Taylor

A South African aiming to change the world through Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been accepted into a prestigious global leadership programme. Prof Vukosi Marivate, the Absa Chair of Data Science at the University of Pretoria (UP), has been accepted into the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders programme. Prof Marivate is a leading expert in data science and AI in Africa. He is working to develop data-driven solutions to social and economic problems in Africa.

A Group of Young People Tackling the World’s Problems

Since its establishment, the Forum of Young Global Leaders has cultivated a diverse community of outstanding people addressing the world’s most pressing problems – today made up of over 1 400 members and alumni from more than 120 countries. This year’s cohort includes nearly 100 promising political leaders, innovative entrepreneurs, game-changing researchers and visionary activists who are accelerating positive and lasting change in their communities, countries and the world.

Wadia Ait Hamza, Head of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, says: “In a turbulent and polarised world, committed, conscientious and inspired leaders are needed to create real-world change for the benefit of all. Young Global Leaders have demonstrated their commitment to improving the state of the world by unlocking the potential of technology for the common good, unveiling a plan to revolutionise health services in rural and refugee communities and galvanising private sector action on pollution.”

As part of their three-year leadership development programme, Young Global Leaders will have access to a range of executive education courses, learning journeys and opportunities to collaborate with trusted peers, Prof Marivate said: “I am very honoured by this inclusion. It fills me with pride and is not just a reflection of myself but also those who I have worked with and those who have supported my journey as a scientist.”

The appointment acknowledges the important work being carried out by Prof Marivate. As the holder of the ABSA UP Chair of Data Science, his work with his research group, Data Science for Social Impact, focuses on two pillars.

Firstly, it looks at the intersection of AI and language – especially African languages – and how to create new tools, methods, and approaches. “We are one of the leading groups in this area and work to also support the wider African Natural Language Processing community,” says Prof Marivate The second aspect is studying the intersection of data science and society. “[This] deals with how we can make data science or machine learning tools useful for society in general. This means our group works in areas such as health, education, the environment, and more,” he says.

Shining a Light on African AI Research

Joining the Forum will give Prof Marivate the opportunity to promote his research in new ways. “I am hoping to use the platform to continue shining a light on African research in AI and natural language processing,” he said.

Some of Prof Marivate’s work centres around building tools for African languages. Many African languages have millions of speakers, but few digital resources, such as digital dictionaries. Around 2 000 of the world’s languages are African, but they are barely represented in technology.

The continent’s colonialist past has resulted in technological space that does not understand African names, cultures, places or history. Led by Prof Marivate, the Masakhane Natural Language Processing (NLP) research project was named the 2021 Wikimedia Foundation Research Award of the Year. They received the award for their research paper titled ‘Participatory research for low-resourced machine translation: A case study in African languages.’

“Language matters. Being understood by other people is one of the things that unites families, tribes, nations, and the African diaspora. It is essential when it comes to being included in both the digital and societal environments,” said Prof Marivate. “For example, there may be eleven official languages in South Africa, but only if a government minister makes a one-line statement in one of those languages, will it be translated, and even then, it is translated into English.

Anyone speaking one of the other official languages will not have access to the speech, or to government directives. They would not have translations of any value for education and medical scenarios either, and would have no way of making their voice heard or understood.”

Sources: BizNews / University of Pretoria / World Economic Forum