Wits Leads Ambitious Partnership To Drive AI In Africa

“We embark on these great undertakings because we remain optimistic about the future of our country and our continent”– Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), Johannesburg

Wits University
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor of Wits University

Wits University today invited Africa’s research community to join its newly formed AI Africa Consortium which aims to develop a collaborative network focussed on the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) and the application of AI in research and innovation.

Addressing the virtual opening of AI Expo Africa 2021, the largest business-focused AI event in Africa, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University, announced the ambitious partnership, saying AI and machine learning (ML) “offers huge opportunities for development and progress in Africa”.

“For us to fully participate in the 21st Century, we must use this ‘scientific renaissance’ to drive innovation and foster the growth of a strong scientific ecosystem. In so doing, we can play an active role in achieving true progress and help steer the socioeconomic trajectory of the African continent,” Vilakazi said.

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It is for this reason that Wits University has partnered with Cirrus AI, a private sector-led initiative that aims to bring large-scale AI infrastructure capacity and world-class expertise to the doorstep of African universities, research institutions, researchers, and industry collaborators. Cirrus was announced at the AI Expo Africa in 2019.

“Cirrus is an initiative that aims to secure funding to establish among other things, the first AI supercomputer hub in Africa which will be located on Wits University’s campus. Cirrus has already formed partnerships and relationships with stakeholders in the AI space throughout the world,” explained Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of Innovation Strategy at Wits University. He is the project leader for the AI Africa Consortium.

“This partnership will promote and drive AI innovation and entrepreneurship through the infrastructure, engineering capacity, and learning programmes that will be set up. Student participation and training will be central in our efforts to develop AI skills in Africa,” he said.

Help us grow Africa’s research footprint

The Consortium will also lead engagement and coordination with government agencies and non-profit research institutions on the adoption of Cirrus. It will support data science practices across research fields and aid local academic and research institutions to stimulate AI research and advance the application of AI in industry.

“Wits University has Africa’s largest grouping of researchers and postgraduate students working in the disciplines of data science, AI and ML. We invite all members of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) as well as from other universities and research institutions in Africa to join the AI Africa Consortium and help us grow Africa’s footprint on the global research output map,” Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, said in her address at the Africa AI Expo.

Looking ahead

“We embark on these great undertakings because we remain optimistic about the future of our country and our continent. There are huge opportunities to create economic activity and solve problems drawing from AI and ML. This will guarantee the future of our society for generations to come,” Vilakazi said.

How will the AI Africa Consortium work?

Tier 1 Consortium members will each appoint an ‘ambassador’. These ambassadors will participate in what will be known as the ‘Ambassador Advisory Network’, responsible for building the network and negotiating benefits on behalf of the members of the Consortium.

What will the benefits be in joining the AI Africa Consortium?

“Through international collaborations already established by Cirrus AI, the Consortium will link members with the global AI network,” Dwolatzky explained in his presentation to the AI Africa Expo.

Other benefits include:

  • Providing researchers with access to hardware / software / data and machine learning engineers. Although it is implied it is often overlooked that infrastructure is useless without the supporting engineering to assist in making use of it.
  • Access to state-of-the-art computing capability where members will have free access to the powerful supercomputing platform housed at Wits University;
  • A ‘Digital Asset Locker’ where members will have access to ample storage capacity to store data for use in ML and activities in AI;
  • A ‘Sandbox’ where researchers can try out concepts and ideas;
  • Co-development programmes for AI research and learning;
  • An annual summer and winter schools programme to build AI skills;
  • ‘Saloons’ and ‘Teatime’ talks to share information across Africa and beyond;
  • The right to host events at Consortium forums;
  • Inclusion in Consortium-led proposals and contracts to take part in continent-wide bids for research grants and funding in the field of AI.

Also read: Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative

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