Shaping an African future with human-centred Artificial Intelligence – the passion of newly appointed NRF SARChI Chair in Artificial Intelligence, Associate Professor Deshen Moodley

02 Jun 2023
Deshen Moodley
02 Jun 2023

Associate Professor Deshen Moodley was recently awarded the DSI/NRF-UCT SARChI Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence (AI) Systems, in the Artificial Intelligence Research Unit, Department of Computer Science, University of Cape Town.  This is the first SARChI Chair at UCT under the DSI/NRF’s new SARChI co-funding framework. 

Humans and AI working collaboratively.
Deshen’s research focus is on Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems – specifically human-centred AI systems.  This is a field which is very much in the spotlight at the moment and people are asking ‘Will AI replace us?’ and ‘Where do we fit in?’ and this is the area of tangible systems and augmented AI systems that Deshen is passionate about.  He comments, “many people think of AI systems as autonomous and are concerned that they will replace humans, however the whole idea behind augmented AI are AI systems is that they work collaboratively and in tandem with humans, where the machine and human establish a seamless partnership with the AI amplifying human performance rather than replacing it”.

Google Maps as an example of AI
According to Deshen, a good example of Artificial Intelligence, and how AI developed in this augmented fashion, is Google Maps.  This GPS service does dynamic planning; in real time it understands traffic patterns, makes estimates and updates your route continuously, giving accurate predictions of time of arrival, etc. This is an example of incredible modelling and sophisticated technology which has augmented our reality and freed us up to do other things.  We have become reliant on Google Maps and it is now seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. For instance, city planners can see from AI where traffic bottlenecks exist and address those issues! What is fascinating, is human behaviour while engaging with AI and Deshen describes how people talk to the Google Maps voice, interact with it, and sometimes disagree or argue with it!

Advantages and Disadvantages of AI:
As mentioned previously, some people are fearful of AI, however, it is apparent that AI has the capacity to amplify what we do and free people up to focus their cognitive energy and capacity on other things.  Yes, AI has brought change, and for some people rapid change can be uncomfortable, but it can also reduce anxiety and stress, tell you where there will be a problem (think traffic snarl-up) and free up some cognitive cycles so that you can focus on other things.  What is interesting is that people don’t endow Google Maps with AI properties, probably because they are so familiar and comfortable with it. Furthermore, through the use of Google maps, our spatial reasoning is changing: the next generation may not be able to read traditional paper maps and will develop their spatial reasoning skills in a new and different way.  This change brought on by a disruptive technology is not new, e.g. the calculator brought about a similar change to arithmetic. But we live in a fluid and rapidly changing world – and we can either choose to embrace the change, or be fearful of it. 

AI and 3D Digital Twins
Deshen is very interested in how AI can enable other disruptive technologies, e.g. the emerging area of digital twins, where we have a pseudo reality in a 3D virtual world which attempts to replicate and synchronise real-world physical and social entities, and systems in real-time – and links closely with the idea of the metaverse.  This 3D virtual world can mimic reality and has diverse smart city applications.  This is an exciting area which is already gaining traction, e.g. WESGRO has created a virtual 3D model of Table Mountain which people can use to explore the mountain without actually visiting it.  This approach provides the capability for simulating not just physical entities in a city, but also to simulate people, their activities and interactions. It will produce a new platform to not only change how people are entertained, but how they interact with the physical world and with each other.  He is particularly interested in exploring the potential of digital twins (a 3D representation of reality) and AI to bring about fundamental change in public health in low-resource African settings. AI driven 3D digital twins can be leveraged to develop new approaches for public health monitoring and simulation, for examining how epidemics evolve and for improving our overall health and wellbeing.  

Leveraging new approaches in Deep Learning
Deshen has a long history of working in the public health space and comments that using a 3D twin approach can radically change traditional approaches for modelling and simulation, especially for predictive modelling and to deepen our understanding of human behaviour. It can bring about a shift from curative health, which is the thrust of the current system, towards a system focussed more towards preventative health.  With this approach, he explains that this will also fundamentally change health research and knowledge production, where researchers publish and share not just their data, but also their models and code.  His research looks at AI systems that are both adaptive and cognitive (align with how humans think).  The adaption mechanisms incorporates powerful pattern recognition and predictive modelling techniques.  In the area of deep learning new techniques, such as spatial-temporal graph neural networks, have emerged over the last two years.  These techniques, which learn complex and erratic spatial temporal dependencies, outperform older deep learning methods in dynamic spatial-temporal applications, and are now established for crowd flow modelling and prediction applications, such as vehicle traffic and the movement of people in urban environments. These techniques have high potential for real-time prediction of human movement, interactions and activities in urban environments based on noisy and incomplete sensor observations. 

Health monitoring
One of Deshen’s PhD students is currently looking at how AI systems can be used for continuous personal health monitoring and wellness applications using low-cost wearables.  This is showing positive outputs for building individualised health models for health monitoring and prediction.  One of the exciting new findings in this area is that a person’s emotional state can now be estimated from a low-cost ECG reading – which holds promise for mental health and well-being applications.  This capacity to not only be able to access physiological characteristics, but to understand the mind-body continuum and emotional states, through AI enabled analysis of heart signals, is a promising and exciting development. 

Broader Vision for AI in South Africa
One of Deshen’s passions is to build AI capacity in South Africa. We need to ensure that we as a country don’t fall behind in AI and that South African AI researcher makes valuable contributions to the global AI community.  UCT should strive to be a leader in this important field and in pursuing that goal, his research group produces new and innovative AI applications, systems and technology regularly.  Within UCT, he and Professor Tommie Meyer have set up an AI Research Unit and they work collaboratively with international associates in Italy, Germany and France.  The significance of their AI Research Unit is reflected in the official accreditation of their research unit at UCT; Tommie receiving a prestigious A-rating from the NRF which gives recognition to his international leadership in his field; Deshen being awarded the SARChI chair and the establishment of a UCT AI Research Chair for Tommie under a new pilot Research Chair framework at UCT.

Fellowship at Paris Institute for Advanced Studies & Sorbonne Université
Deshen was one of 19 international fellows who participated in the Intercontinental Academia (ICA)’s meeting dedicated to AI. The ICA creates a global network of future research leaders to work together on paradigm-shifting, cross-disciplinary research, mentored by eminent researchers from across the globe.  As a result of his participation in ICA, he has just been awarded a 10-month fellowship by the Paris Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in a joint project with the Center for Artificial Intelligence (SCAI) at Sorbonne Université.  Here he will work on his project titled: “Augmented Artificial Intelligence enabled software agents for supporting interactive human decision making, and knowledge discovery and evolution”.  This prestigious opportunity will offer him the opportunity to reside in Paris, to interact closely with local colleagues and other fellows, and to dedicate this period to develop an innovative, trans-disciplinary (and hopefully field-changing!) research project.  The Paris IAS’s mandate expresses the opportunity as “we are looking to promote transformative, impactful, interdisciplinary research that helps inform the big scientific and social questions of our times”.  Deshen says he is looking forward to the applied and multi-disciplinary approach to working with AI while he is at the Paris IAS and Sorbonne and to explore and pursue big ideas where human-centred AI can be leveraged to solve societal problems in Africa. 

An African future using AI
One of the key things that Deshen highlights is that all the big ideas in AI, such as a robot scientist for scientific knowledge discovery, should not only come from the global North – the global South should be providing perspective, systems and ideas.  This links into UCT’s Vision 2030.  He stresses that we need to be proactive and ask how we can shape an African future using AI.  With this in mind, he stresses the need for cross-faculty, university wide workshops on AI; increasing the visibility of AI; and working with other universities in South Africa.  When not doing his research and lecturing, Deshen is in demand as a speaker at conferences and national forums where his expertise and thought leadership in this field is highly regarded.  

Story:  Katherine Wilson
Photo:  Supplied