South Africa has no shortage of aspiring Zuckerbergs, and potential financiers, if their ideas are original and viable, judging from the impressive queue at the Sandton Convention Centre on Tuesday morning.
Though billed as an artificial intelligence (AI) gathering, the dominant theme of the AI Summit appeared to be tech start-up funding.
I started the day attending a presentation by former FNB CEO turned venture capitalist Michael Jordaan in the JSE-sponsored ‘scale-ups’ room.
Jordaan ended his talk by begging the young, educated members of the audience not to emigrate, but to remain in South Africa and start businesses offering solutions to the country’s many serious problems.
“Entrepreneurs can do more for this country than politicians or anyone else,” he says.
Jordaan’s first goal when he retired from corporate life? To cut down on coffee and get fit. But reducing his caffeine intake proved difficult once word spread that he was looking for entrepreneurs to finance. Everyone wanted to have coffee with him.
He repeated a complaint often heard from venture capitalists: they get inundated with mostly derivative and half-baked ideas from people who expect financiers to execute their ideas for them.
The start-ups he has opted to back are working on solutions to serious problems such as South Africa’s high data, banking and electricity prices. Jordaan said that while still in his old job he could not admit that South Africa’s banking fees are way too high. But now he can.
Though generally trying to sound upbeat, Jordaan was fairly sober about the prospects of the start-ups he picked.
“I know for a fact that some of them are going to fail,” he said, without singling any one out.
R11m for a good idea explained well
He reminded his audience to consider crowdfunding, relating a story about a friend who raised R11 million – for a business idea based on Lego’s patent expiring – after uploading a well-made video that clearly explained the idea. The start-up was soon acquired by a New Zealand-based toymaker.
Following Jordaan’s talk, I popped into the ‘disruptive tech’ room where, despite the name, the theme was again venture capital. A shark tank-style show was underway, with entrepreneurs pitching their ideas to a panel of experts and potential financiers.
Those behind the presentations I sat throughy appeared to have heeded Jordaan’s advice.
They all focused on ways of using technology to address South Africa’s high rate of unemployment.
Various ideas for offering an Uber-type service to companies looking to hire short-term, blue-collar labour were pitched, taking into account that potential temporary employees often cannot afford smartphones, or live in areas where internet access is poor or non-existent. One proposal was to use SMSs instead of the internet for communication between job seekers and employers.
A key part of these services involved allowing employers to rate temporary employees to aid future bosses.
One of the panelists, Wits robotics lecturer Benjamin Rosman, asked if these services would reciprocally allow workers to rate employers so as to warn their fellows against bad bosses. Some said they would.
Asked whether AI would worsen South Africa’s unemployment rate by replacing humans with machines, Rosman joked: “As the token academic in this room, I want to point out that work is bad and should be done away with.”
This turned the conversation to US presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal to introduce a universal basic income.
The consensus was that Yang has little chance of winning in 2020, but that he has planted a seed in the minds of the TV-watching masses.
Some of the speakers at the summit believe a future beckons in which all work will be done by machines while we enjoy a leisurely life spending our assured basic income.
Rosman would no doubt be interested in the yin side of Yang’s vision of the future.
Robert Laing is a journalist and founder of newsgames.biz.