The 4IR tsunami is set to sweep over us sooner rather than later, say the experts. So, what does South Africa need to do to stay afloat?
Don’t fight it
‘I don’t see it as a necessary evil, but as inevitable,’ says Dr Benjamin Rosman, Principal Researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who specialises in learning and decision-making in autonomous systems.
When it comes to machine learning and automation, he believes the more intelligence you have working on a problem, the better.
‘We’ve seen in recent history that these tools enable people to do more with their time and solve more complicated problems,’ he explains.
4IR will demand new skills
As with any sudden and dramatic societal and economic change, the impact will be dichotomous.
The likely result of these rapid technological advances will be growing inequality within and between countries, as well as many other potential effects, says Professor André Roux, Head of the Futures Studies programmes at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
‘No country in the world will escape the effects of the 4IR – for better or for worse,’ he warns. ‘The question is whether countries will be able to enjoy the benefits of the revolution, while minimising the more malignant effects.’
As for South Africa, his view is that unless the entire nature and approach of the education and training system undergoes a major and immediate overhaul, we are in trouble.
4IR will undoubtedly create many new jobs, but they will require cognitive skills in the form of complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision-making.
Although Roux says that these skills are in short supply, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, there are institutions carrying the torch into this uncertain future.
On a tertiary level, for instance, there are the soon-to-be-launched 4IR Centre at the CSIR, and the department of Futures Studies at Stellenbosch, led by Roux and his team, among others.
The CSIR is encouraging both research and development in the corporate sector and upskilling students in these crucial fields of study, Rosman says.
At the University of the Witwatersrand, where Rosman is also a researcher, there are a number of popular honours, master’s and PhD programmes.
From third-year level, students in engineering and computer science are introduced to machine learning and automation. ‘Most of our students are now doing something that could fall under this broad category,’ he says.
‘We live in a world where everything is already run by computers,’ Rosman adds. We need to be able to tell these computers what to do, and this will increasingly be the case as more tasks are automated and handled by non-humans.
‘Revolution implies change, and change implies progress.’
Making 4IR work for us
Soon corporates will have to analyse huge amounts of inflowing data using complex computers and computer programmes, regardless of the industry.
‘If you don’t do this, it means you won’t understand the realities of your industry (which you get through analytics) and that you are simply running on intuition,’ Rosman explains.
The good news is that there are countless opportunities for South African companies to take advantage of the catalytic technologies behind 4IR.
Rosman believes companies can tackle issues using smart technologies, with less capital and fewer resources. He mentions the examples of automated translation of African languages, and cellphone apps that can diagnose diseases on, for instance, the cassava plant, a major food staple in several countries on the continent.
‘There is also great potential for well-established companies when it comes to controlling stocks and logistics,’ he says.
‘Revolution implies change, and change implies progress,’ says Roux. ‘The challenge to humankind is to ensure that the new emerging technologies remain subservient to humankind’s fundamental desires, hopes and aspirations, and to prevent a situation where we become the minions.’
To listen to Dr Benjamin Rosman discuss the future of work, download our MiNDSPACE podcast. For further expert insights, also sign up for the MiNDSPACE mailer for free and download MiNDSPACE magazine.