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School of Chemistry launches new AI research initiative for Africa

- Wits University

Africans should be the contributors, shapers and owners of the coming advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi.

(From left) The Cirrus Initiative team: Professor Dean Brady, Gregg Barret, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Taariq Surtee, Dr Roy Forbes and Dr Dean Barrett

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.

Announcing the Cirrus Initiative during the 2019 AI Expo Africa in Cape Town, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs, said Wits is one of the leading institutions in machine learningand 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. 
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.
School of Chemistry laboratory. CREDIT: WITS UNIVERSITY
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.
“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. 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,” says Vilakazi.
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.

X-ray crystallography, as done in the School of Chemistry, has been fundamental in the development of many scientific fields. CREDIT: WITS UNIVERSITY

About the Cirrus Initiative

The Cirrus Initiative includes:
  • The creation of a cooperation program: Supporting interdisciplinary cooperation spanning academia and industry around the world through its network, boosting the application of AI technologies and ensuring the transformative potential benefits for the region.
  • Adding State-of-art computing to the current research infrastructure: Supported by teams of hardware, software, machine learning and data engineers. It will bring together engineering teams, researchers, computing infrastructure and extensive scientific instrumentation to enable a step change in research efforts of academia and industry in the region.
  • Building Open Learning: Ensuring inclusive participation, the dissemination of knowledge and ideas and the development of the next generation of AI researchers.
  • The Cirrus FOUNDRY and Cirrus FOUNDRY Fund: The Cirrus FOUNDRYwill create a collaborative environment connecting start-ups to students, researchers, faculty, corporate partners and capital concerned with real world AI innovation. It will ensure that start-ups have the necessary resources, people and skills to better tackle the challenging problems across a range of industries and drive innovation toward significant impact on society. Importantly, the Cirrus FOUNDRY will specialise in fostering support for early stage innovations and in helping start-ups make the transition from science to real world application. Through the Cirrus FOUNDRY Fund, funding provided to start-ups will ensure that they are not wholly dependent on outside capital and will increase the short-term success of the start-up by bridging the “Valley of Death” – the challenge of turning a start-up idea or scientific research into a large-scale commercial application.
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

Researchers in the School of Chemistry

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Wits

Wits University has a number of 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.

AI/ML and Data Science are two of 15 areas of research excellence at Wits. In its pursuit to create a strong research community that can find African solutions to AI challenges, Wits has several interdisciplinary collaborations in AI/ML education, research and innovation. 


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