Emerging imperatives for a robust artificial intelligence regulatory framework

The issue of the regulation of Artificial Intelligence has been a subject of discussion in many parts of the world. Picture: AFP

The issue of the regulation of Artificial Intelligence has been a subject of discussion in many parts of the world. Picture: AFP

Published Oct 5, 2023


By Mandla J Radebe

As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to permeate our lives and transform various sectors and industries, the spotlight on its regulation has inevitably intensified. With countries in the global north actively pushing for AI regulation, their counterparts in the global south are grappling with their own AI challenges. For example, South Africa is currently engaged in aspects around measuring and monitoring the country’s readiness for AI integration and regulation. This situation raises crucial questions about the role and urgency of AI regulation in South Africa and the continent at large.

Recently, the UK’s science, innovation, and technology committee strongly urged the government to introduce new legislation for AI regulation. Failing to do so, argued the committee, might result in the UK falling behind the European Union (EU) and the United States (US), which are currently perceived as frontrunners in setting the pace for AI regulation. The EU has gained recognition as a trendsetter in tech regulation due to, among other factors, the introduction of its new AI Act. This comprehensive legislation focuses on enhancing rules related to data quality, transparency, human oversight, and accountability.

The core objective of the EU’s intervention is to address ethical concerns and implementation challenges spanning various sectors, including healthcare, education, finance, and energy. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Biden administration in the US recently published its own blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights. Additionally, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in that country introduced the AI Risk Management Framework. These documents collectively aim to protect individuals and society from AI-related risks, emphasising the growing significance of AI safety.

South Africa, along with the rest of the African continent, faces the fundamental task of comprehending AI readiness and maturity in critical areas such as the data landscape, AI skills, and AI infrastructure. While assessing these readiness indicators, the question of AI regulation should not be overlooked.

The Politics of AI

While AI and related technologies have been touted as possessing the ability to revolutionise various aspects of our lives and economic activities, the inherent concerns have not escaped attention. Among the most notable concerns is the potential displacement of human occupations. Access and digital inequality are significant worries, particularly in the global south. South Africa, with its well-documented socio-economic challenges, including high levels of inequality, poverty, and chronic unemployment, must carefully navigate technological advancements in this context.

The growth of the internet and smartphone usage in Africa has also led to an exponential increase in social media activity. Users generate vast amounts of data through social media interactions, which leads to the practice of data media mining. However, data mining is not limited to social media platforms alone. Tech giants also collect extensive data sets for targeted advertising and revenue generation, closely guarding these data sets as a vital part of their business models. Consequently, regulation in this area becomes critical.

Another vital aspect is ensuring the safe use of social media platforms, especially as the platform economy expands. Digital platforms often impose their terms on users with limited room for negotiation. This raises concerns about reducing risks and enhancing safety across these platforms. For example, the EU’s AI Act aims to ensure the safety of users. In South Africa, many users have fallen victim to scammers on digital platforms with limited recourse.

This situation prompts us to question whether self-regulation, ethical guidelines, and standards are sufficient to protect vulnerable users against improper AI use.

The 2023 Google Africa Internet Academy

AI regulation and other related issues came into sharp focus at the 2023 Google Africa Internet Academy, which took place in September and was hosted by the University of Johannesburg's (UJ) Centre for Data and Digital Communication and the Artificial Institute of Intelligence will host this event, in collaboration with the Johannesburg Business School (JBS). The event brought together policymakers, business and technology leaders from across Africa to explore the latest trends in technology policy and regulation.

While the world moves forward with comprehensive AI regulations, South Africa is still grappling with its own unique challenges, such as understanding AI readiness, the data landscape, and ethical concerns, which are vital tasks. The discussions delved into technology policy and regulation, providing valuable insights and opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs and other stakeholders in the technology sector. The workshop unravelled issues including AI for good, privacy, and AI, including the collection and use of personal information, people’s ability to understand and control how their data is used, the socio-economic potential value of AI, as well as the impact of data-driven technologies on people and society.

The country’s participation in events like the Google Africa Internet Academy 2023 signifies a step towards bridging the knowledge gap and shaping the future of AI regulation in South Africa. As AI continues to transform our world, the need for a robust regulatory framework becomes increasingly apparent to balance innovation with ethical considerations and user safety.

*Mandla J Radebe is an Associate Professor in the Department of Strategic Communication and the Director of the Centre for Data and Digital Communications at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL