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Artificial Intelligence in Africa promoted with Deep Learning Indaba conference
Author: Media and communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 04/09/2018

More than 500 participants from 30 African and 19 international countries will converge at Stellenbosch University next week for one of the largest Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning teaching events in the world.

The Deep Learning Indaba, an annual gathering of the African Artificial Intelligence community, will be hosted by Stellenbosch University, South Africa, from 9 to 14 September 2018.

Over six days the Deep Learning Indaba will expose more than 500 African students, researchers and entrepreneurs to several of the world leaders in the fields of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI). These include Dr Katja Hofmann, a researcher in the Machine Intelligence and Perception group at Microsoft Research Cambridge University, and Dr Kyunghyun Cho from New York University and research scientist at Facebook AI Research. From Google the speakers are Professor Jeff Dean, head of Google's Research and Machine Intelligence Division, and Dr David Silver, head of the Reinforcement Learning research group at DeepMind.

The Deep Learning Indaba is a volunteer-driven grassroots organisation whose aim is to build pan-African capacity and ownership in AI by creating communities, building leadership and recognising excellence in AI across the continent.

One of the local organisers, Dr Willie Brink from Stellenbosch University (SU), says they were overwhelmed by more than 1300 applications this year. “There is a sustained growth in interest and skills in AI across the continent. The Indaba has grown from 300 participants in 2017 to 550 in 2018, with the number of female participants increasing from 23% to 30% this year."

Dr Nyalleng Moorosi, a scientist at Google AI Lab in Ghana and one of the organisers, believes AI holds the promise of empowering Africans and creating pan-African unity and advancement through exchange of values and expertise: “This is why pan-Africa gatherings such as the Indaba are so important, because they ensure that we develop and identify continent-wide skills and talent to address the challenges that face our continent and people," she says.

Dr Shakir Mohamed, a research scientist at DeepMind in the United Kingdom and one of the lead organisers, says the 2018 Deep Learning Indaba clearly demonstrates that there is already excellence and capacity in modern machine learning and AI on the continent: “Despite what many may think, Africans are ready to use the power of AI to advance our communities and continent. It is of critical importance to strengthen the field of machine learning in Africa. We need diversity and there are unique problems that are specific to Africa. Africans must be contributors, shapers and owners of the coming advances in Artificial Intelligence, and how these will impact on our communities."

Professor Wim de Villiers, Rector of Stellenbosch University, said the Deep Learning Indaba has the full support of Stellenbosch University. Conference participants will have access to 550 computers in five computer labs on the campus, as well as several of the largest lecture halls on the campus, including technical and IT support.

“To stay abreast of the latest developments in this field is of the utmost importance to universities – for both their research and teaching functions. Big data and AI will fundamentally influence not only the world of work, but also the generation and transfer of knowledge – across academic disciplines. That is why we aim to establish an interfaculty school for data science and computational thinking at Stellenbosch University," Prof De Villiers said.

Key events and activities include:

  • The opening keynote speaker is Professor Nando de Freitas, a South African entrepreneur and one of the field's leading thinkers, on Monday 10 September;
  • The inaugural Kambule and Maathai awards recognise excellence in the research and application of machine learning in Africa. The awards will be conferred for the first time on Wednesday 12 September;
  • The closing keynote address will be delivered by Professor Jeff Dean, global head of Google AI, and Google Senior Fellow, on Friday, 14 September.

The complete list of speakers can be found online.

The full schedule is available online.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

The aim of the Deep Learning Indaba is to strengthen the field of machine learning in Africa. This is of critical importance since Africans must be contributors, shapers and owners of the coming advances in Artificial Intelligence, and how these will impact on our communities.​

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the encompassing name for all research that aims to develop machines (e.g., computers, robots, embedded devices) with similar types of intelligent behaviour exhibited by humans. These aspects of intelligence include solving tasks, forming plans, abstract reasoning, using memory of past events to influence future decisions, and the use of language, amongst others. We often refer to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) to emphasise that the ultimate aim is to develop a general solution that can perform all these tasks in a single system.

Machine learning is the research area that develops general-purpose algorithms that can learn from data to solve a particular task. These tasks can include predictions of future events, simulations of system behaviour, recommendations, or explanations. Machine learning combines statistics with computer science and engineering to build systems that can be as accurate as possible while also handling large amounts of data. Because machine learning provides particular solutions, these individual solutions form the basis of developing AGI systems.

Deep learning is one type of machine learning that uses deep neural networks. A neural network is a set of calculating units that are stacked upon each other and which can be easily trained using data; this stack is called deep since many layers of calculating units are used. Deep learning is the basis of recent advances in text-to-speech systems, language translation and object recognition. The success of deep learning is one of the reasons for the recent and rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence research.

Reinforcement learning is the part of machine learning that deals with teaching machines to learn by trial-and-error, using rewards and punishments. By striving to accumulate the largest amount of reward, an artificial agent can learn to develop strategies and solutions to problems without being given explicit solutions to those problems. Deep learning and reinforcement learning have been recently combined into the area of deep reinforcement learning.

Media interviews

Contact the organisers at to set up interviews with any of the following speakers and/or organisers:

Local organisers

Dr Willie Brink, Stellenbosch University

Dr Benjamin Rosman, University of the Witwatersrand

International organisers

Dr Shakir Mohamed, DeepMind, United Kingdom

Dr Ulrich Paquet, DeepMind, United Kingdom

Speakers from Africa

Dr Vukosi Marivate, CSIR

Dr Mmaki Jantjies, University of the Western Cape

African women in machine learning

Dr Nyalleng Moorosi, CSIR

Dr Kathleen Siminyu, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and Head of Data Science: Africa's Talking

Keynote speakers

Professor Nando de Freitas, University of Oxford (United Kingdom) and the University of British Columbia (Canada)

Professor Jeff Dean, Google (for interviews, contact