Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative

“It is critical that Africans are the contributors, shapers and owners of the coming advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning” – Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits University 

Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative

The Molecular Sciences Institute (MSI) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, in partnership with the Cirrus Initiative, today announced plans for a new artificial intelligence (AI) research operation in Africa.

The AI initiative was announced at the 2019 AI Expo Africa in Cape Town.

Hosted by the MSI in the Wits School of Chemistry, the newly formed Cirrus Initiative will focus on the analysis of research data in chemistry, with a view to collaborate with physics, technology and engineering projects using machine learning.

Advances in AI and its application in addressing the challenges facing Africa have the potential to drive innovation in academia and industry and shape future societies. There is a growing need for talent, infrastructure and funding to support such innovation and to fully realise the opportunities presented in our technology and data-driven world.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs, said Wits is one of the leading institutions in machine learning and data science research in Africa, and that this collaboration will boost the University’s efforts as it envisions a step change in the research and application of AI in the region.

“To become competitive in this new wave of innovation fuelled by AI and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and with the substantial accumulation of resources and investments in new technologies in North America, Europe and Asia, require efforts in southern Africa on a magnitude far greater than any previous endeavour spanning academia and industry,” says Vilakazi.

Cirrus aims to create a collaborative university and industry platform supporting an ecosystem that fosters innovation and entrepreneurialism.

As the host university, Wits will lead the Cirrus Initiative’s cooperation efforts with universities, institutes, Centres of Excellence and research groups in Africa.

While Cirrus will initially focus on the research and application of AI in chemical, physical and biological systems, its capability will be extended to the benefit of other fields to foster the growth of a strong scientific ecosystem on the continent.

Numerous direct and indirect employment opportunities for scientists and engineers will also be created.

“Combining Africa’s vibrant talent with the building of a globally competitive platform for leading scientific research and application will drive innovation and undoubtedly foster economic development in the region,” says Vilakazi.

“In our pursuit of knowledge creation, it is also critical that Africans are the contributors, shapers and owners of the coming advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

As part of the effort to foster collaboration, Cortex Group have entered into a cooperation agreement with the Cirrus Initiative to lead the establishment of Cirrus FOUNDRY Cape, an operation focused on developing start-ups and helping them move from ideation to commercial operation.

Their team has been at the forefront of collaborative AI efforts in Africa and by working with Wits and Cirrus will be able to unlock even more opportunities.

Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative
Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative

The Cirrus Initiative will also initiate several research assistance programmes, including:

  • A Research to Communication programme
  • An Open Learning programme
  • A Residency programme
  • A PhD Internship programme
  • A Postdoctorate programme
  • An Assistantship programme

AI and ML at Wits

Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative
Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative

Wits University has several highly skilled artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) researchers piloting the growth of this field in Africa and has the only researchers on the continent to publish regularly in all major international AI, ML and robotics conferences.

Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative
Wits University Create Africa’s AI Research Initiative

Highlights

  • Earlier this year, Wits University became the first African partner on the IBM Q Network for quantum computing research. Wits researchers will investigate the use of quantum computing and machine learning in the fields of cosmology and molecular biology with a specific focus on HIV drug discovery.
  • AI/ML technologies are key drivers in Wits’ Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein where an urban community of future thinkers reimagines digital innovation for a more equitable future through research and ingenious collaboration.
  • The annual Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival takes place at Tshimologong and brings together diverse digital and technology sectors to collaborate and share skills in digital media and technology innovation, including exploring AI/ML technologies.
  • The Wits Mining Institute and DigiMine use machine learning to make mining safer and sustainable.
  • The navigational precision of dung beetles discovered by scientists in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences will in future be used in AI/ML and robotics innovation.

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