The team partnering with Cirrus AI is led by Wits vice-chancellor, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi 

The largest Artificial Intelligence (AI) project on the African continent was announced by Wits University on Friday, March 26. The Wits project, in partnership with AI research entity, Cirrus, will be headed by institution’s vice chancellor, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi.  

The partnership aims to create new opportunities to implement machine learning as a pedagogical tool into all faculties at Wits University. It also aims to introduce state-of-the-art facilities and a variety of courses to train both students and members of the public, to advance AI in Africa. 

The Wits team includes Professor Emeritus Barry Dwolatzky, Professor Nithaya Chetty and Dr Roy Forbes. A part of the long-term goals of the project is to implement formal machine learning courses that will be available as short courses to the public, electives for undergraduate students and advanced courses for postgraduates. According to Forbes, these will be made available during the 2021 period and the short courses will be accessible to all faculties immediately, but the advanced courses will be piloted in the Wits science faculty. 

AI is used in many everyday applications like internet-based apps from Siri to Facebook. Dwolatzky explained that AI is a written algorithm or system that actively learns through data collection. Ultimately, it behaves like a human brain that constantly learns as it gathers more information, but through artificial and coded intelligence rather than real intelligence. An example of this is when you post something on Facebook, the AI algorithm runs in the background ensuring that your post appears on the news feed of the your friends whom the AI deems to be most likely to engage with it.

The applications can also extend into fields such as biomedical engineering. According to Dwolatzky, “the school of electrical and information engineering [has current] work on… using Artificial Intelligence to detect cancer from X-rays.” Essentially, the Cirrus project will be building upon pre-existing research and increase the resources available. 

The team will be led by Wits’ vice-chancellor, Vilakazi, with Dwolatzky, the project lead, who is an Emeritus Professor in the Wits school of electrical and information engineering. As project lead, Dwolatzky will oversee the administrative aspects of the project, such as contracts and encouraging funding. 

The projects champion for scientific engagement, Chetty, is the dean of the faculty of science at Wits. He is also currently a vice president of the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics. Forbes, the engagement coordinator for the project, is a senior researcher in Wits’ faculty of science’s school of chemistry.  

Forbes has been involved in the Cirrus project since 2018 with his key interest being in the use of machine learning aiding in material synthesis and characterisation. Material synthesis is the process wherein new materials are produced, whilst material characterisation is the process of determining and measuring the properties of these new materials. The access to resources that Cirrus offers means that the “manner in which we treat our experimental data will be expanded [in such a way] that we are able to extract more useful information” says Forbes. He also added that “we aim to automate certain processes and tasks which will free [him] up to focus on the more creative and conceptual components of the research project.”  

The project will initially focus on Wits University but aims to expand to other institutions in the future. 

FEATURED IMAGE: The Wits University AI research team partnering with Cirrus. Photo: Wits University.