Are South Africa’s schools equipped to introduce learners to the burgeoning AI economy, and to send young people into the world with the smarts they need to contribute to, lead and innovate in the global artificial intelligence sector?
Yes and no, says Zelda Fynn, ICT Manager at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre. The Sci-Bono Intel AI for Youth programme is part of a global initiative to increase South Africa’s competitiveness in artificial intelligence (AI).
While many South African schools lack the infrastructure to offer AI teaching to learners, there’s a growing number of schools, in both the public and private sectors, that refuse to be left behind and are, in fact, ahead of the AI learning curve. The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre is spearheading AI instruction in some of these schools and its pilot project is delivering exciting results.
Global initiative to groom young people to enter and excel in AI specifically
Sci-Bono is implementing the South African pilot of the Intel AI for Youth programme, a global initiative in 11 countries to groom young people to enter and excel in the tech sector at large, and in AI specifically. The pilot project is rolling out at Waverley Girls High School, Emdeni Secondary School in Soweto, and the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre Clubhouse in the Johannesburg CBD.
It’s a hands-on modular journey through programming, robotics, understanding and managing statistical data, natural language processing, python syntax, and programming and digital design. It’s learning that demystifies the world of AI and gets 13- to 19-year-olds intimately familiar with the technology that’s impacting life right now and defining the future of the world and the global economy.
Intel South Africa and Dell Technologies are partners in the programme with Intel providing training material, support, and capacity building; and Dell Technologies providing the hardware and infrastructure (including the solar-powered labs on each of the school campuses and in the Sci-Bono Clubhouse).
Sci-Bono is programme custodian, selecting learners to participate in the programme, and hiring the AI for Youth trainers.
Classes take place outside the regular school timetable and during holidays. The fact that absenteeism is almost zero attests to the learners’ enthusiasm and hunger to acquire these skills.
Emphasis is always on local relevance and applicability
Learners are not only introduced and trained in the world of AI, but they are also given free rein to programme, trial and introduce applications and programmes of their own innovation. The emphasis is always on local relevance and applicability, says Joao Fidalgo, EMEA and Africa Education Lead at Intel South Africa, and many AI for Youth learners are showing their appetite for and skill in AI through the work they are developing.
Unathi Morake, a 16-year-old learner at Waverly Girls High School, is working on an app to counter gender-based violence. The app will masquerade on mobile devices as something other than what it is, she says. This could be, she says, a shopping app or menstrual cycle tracker. But women will be able to activate it to signal distress or danger and so alert other app users and summon help.
She says it’s a fantastic opportunity to be one of the AI for Youth learners, getting a chance to show that young people have the wherewithal to innovate and deliver right here in South Africa.
This is the power of the AI for Youth programme, Fynn says. “It gives the technical skills to young people with the aptitude to apply them, and it encourages learners to innovate AI solutions to positively impact their own communities.
“There is no doubt that the pilot projects are delivering excellent results. It’s a matter now of seeking national investment to roll the project out across South Africa to benefit more young people, and to swell the ranks of South Africa’s skilled, experienced, and enthusiastic young AI professionals.”
“This is not only about enabling young people to confidently build careers in AI,” Fidalgo says. “An important objective of AI for Youth is to grow South Africa’s presence in the global sector and to develop home-grown artificial intelligence technology that’s not only globally competitive but benefits this nation: our own people.”
Successful AI for Youth Pilot projects have rolled out (or are rolling out) in India, South Korea, Poland, Germany, Singapore, China, the US, the UK, Russia, Israel and Indonesia. The South African pilot now puts those learners at the forefront of a global initiative that will ultimately reach 30 countries, empowering 30-million young people with AI skills: an army for good and for worldwide progress through technology.