A revolutionary thinker at the cutting edge of AI in Africa

When you hear Professor Tshilidzi Marwala’s pedigree, you can’t help but be impressed.

He graduated magna cum laude as a mechanical engineer in the US, then completed a Master’s degree at the University of Pretoria, followed by a Ph.D. in computational intelligence at Cambridge University in the UK.

And that was just the beginning.

It was at Cambridge that he first became involved with analysing the performance of machines, using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to do so. He made machines that could listen to the sound of a car engine and report on it, or take readings on a patient in a hospital ward better and more accurately than a nurse could.

He left the University of Cambridge to go to the University of London Imperial College.

I was a post-doctoral fellow working for the European Commission project on intelligent software. We call them software agents or intelligent agents.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor - University of Johannesburg

He even made a machine that could “taste” beer and predict the taste scores of a panel of 11 human tasters – thus, putting them out of a job, potentially.

These days, Professor Marwala is an academic who has proposed theories and developed concepts and co-invented things as diverse as an artificial voice-box, or software that can bluff when it’s playing poker. You name it, he’s thought about how AI might interact with it, enhance it, or replace it completely.

He’s now the vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg and is repositioning the university to tackle the changes that AI heralds.

His scientific work has netted him more than 45 local and international awards, including the Order of Mapungubwe – South Africa’s highest honour. It’s no surprise he’s advising President Cyril Ramaphosa in his position as deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (chaired by the president himself).

Like the Presidential Commission, Profmed Medical Scheme has also been examining the fourth industrial revolution, and what this means for the rapidly changing world of work. This is why Prof Marwala is profiled as one in an eight-part series of podcasts with host Bongani Bingwa titled The Professional.

Amazingly, for the first 16 years of his life, Prof Marwala had not travelled more than 60km away from his home village of Duthuni in northern Limpopo, and now he is at the cutting edge of AI!

This area, with its rolling hills and its proud history and its ancient, giant baobabs – it was the very last place in South Africa to be conquered by settlers and forced into a Western ideal of modernity.

How does a person like that come to not only inhabit, but to be a leader, in the field of a tech game-changer such as AI?

The answer may lies in two anecdotes from the Prof’s childhood.

The first involves his grandmother – whose distinguishing skill was that she was a master clay pot maker. She may not have been formally schooled as an engineer, but unknowingly she was young Tshilidzi’s very first engineering teacher with her unique pot-making system.

He watched her tapping her pots for quality control over the years and it inspired him.

That is why we have developed a piece of technology that listens to the sound of structures, such as bridges, and based on the sound, it is able to tell you whether it is in good condition. Same principle, but different technology.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor - University of Johannesburg

The second story is about the high school Tshilidzi attended: Mbilwi Secondary School, today one of the biggest schools in Limpopo, with a 100% matric pass rate year after year. Back in the 1980s, it was already an incubator for some of the region’s brightest minds.

He says he appreciated that creativity was still valued in his formative years.

We were assigned, at the age of seven or eight, a small garden at school, where you had to take seeds, and then you planted, you made sure you put enough fertilizer, and so on. Those things are quite complex for an eight-year-old kid to be able to do. We took it for granted.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor - University of Johannesburg

He says these skills became instrumental later on in his life.

In 1989, Tshilidzi’s matric year, he defied the odds – and won the National Youth Science Olympiad, a huge achievement, with a trip to London as a prize.

I spent almost the first 16 years of my life in a geographical area within a 60-kilometre radius. Obviously, when I did leave that part of the world, my own horizon opened up.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor - University of Johannesburg

These formative experiences informing his views about how we need to rebuild our country, and square up to the challenges of the tech revolution that is already underway, he believes.

But whether this is a doomsday or a utopian scenario is up to us, Marwala says 4IR could bring about widening inequality, mass unemployment and talent shortages once AI takes over.

People are freed from drudgery to pursue meaningful and satisfying work, he argues.


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