You’ve probably heard a lot about the fourth industrial revolution, but are still unsure about what it is and how it will affect you. Gugulethu Mhlungu makes sense of it all.
A lot has has been much said and written about the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Certainly, from a government perspective 4IR seems to be the big focus, and everyone from the president to ministers and mayors is talking about it. As a result, a presidential commission of the fourth industrial revolution was announced in June which will examine what SA needs, in policy, skills, technology, to do to partake in the 4IR.
SO, WHAT IS IT?
Economic analyst Stuart Oakley says: “4IR is about combining the physical world with technology. And, using technology to carry out tasks that require physical and/or repetitive labour using machines that can do more complicated tasks. This is possible as robots become able to think, listen, read and learn.” Examples of 4IR in action includes machines assembling more and more of a car’s body during the manufacturing process without human involvement, self-driving cars like the one Tesla, Inc. is making which can detect road markings and other road users, and make complicated decisions while being controlled on a cellphone. In the past, this would have been done by a human. So, if your work duties include many repetitive tasks such as manufacturing – where you pack or assemble things, or you give information such as a call centre agent, or your job can be done faster and cheaper by a machine, 4IR will impact you the most. But, a lot of the discussion has been around 4IR involving access to the internet and computers. At a recent conference in SA, American academic and geopolitical forecaster Dr George Friedman spoke of how SA was confusing 3IR and 4IR, and further confusing digitisation and automation. He added: “4IR has nothing to do with computers because that’s digitisation.”
THREAT OR OPPORTUNITY?
You may have heard predictions that certain jobs may not exist in the future because they will be done by machines. This is partly true because while some jobs will be lost, new ones are being created. We have already seen the impact of automation in the retail and banking sector where tellers have been replaced by machines such as self-service checkout points and ATMs. If you’ve ever checked yourself in at the airport, used a self-service machine, that’s machine learning doing what a person could have done allowing the check-in counters to deal with more complicated tasks. Busisiwe Ndaweni was surprised when she was retrenched as a bank teller earlier this year. “We were told the business was cutting costs and improving efficiency, and so some of us would be retrenched. Since all I have is a matric certificate and a bit of experience, they couldn’t move me to other departments within the business.” While we do not yet know the full extent of the jobs that will be impacted and how, Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi did say in August that: “4IR will affect all of us. Some jobs will go because there will be new jobs that need skills. The issue of retraining and upskilling will be key.“ As SA lags behind in its industrial development, this doesn’t mean that it should not think about how 4IR or Industry 4.0 will affect the country according to Abe Wakama, CEO and publisher of IT News Africa. Abe says most of the African continent is still on its first three industrial revolutions. “We deal with work from around the continent and other African countries are still focused on agriculture, coal, gas and oil, whereas 4IR is about artificial intelligence (AI) and robots.” Abe says those with skills that cannot be replaced by AI or machine learning will likely have a place in the workplace of the future. So while we are still behind, it’s important to start planning for the inevitable changes to come. In 2018, minister of communications Stella Abrahams-Ndabeni announced the Building a Capable 4IR Army development programme. Speaking at the 2019 Digital Economy Summit President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to the programme as: “Seeking to ensure that communities are equipped to take advantage of new digital technologies, unlock future jobs and drive competitiveness. One million young people will be trained in data science and related skills.” Recently, the department of Higher Education and Training did an assessment of the extent to which all our public colleges and universities were teaching 4IR related skills, and found that out of the 50 technical colleges and 24 universities only 11 were teaching programmes related to AI and robotics.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Adoption of new ways of doing things is not without risks, especially for a country like SA. University of Johannesburg vice chancellor and chair of the Presidential Committee on the fourth industrial revolution professor Tshilidzi Marwala, speaking at a recent human capital summit says: “The 4IR will increase inequalities unless we are intentional about what we are going to do to mitigate those inequalities. Before teaching kids coding, South Africa needs to prioritise the basic skills of logical thinking, numerical skills and language processing skills.” Abe agrees saying: “The jobs of the future and opportunities presented by 4IR will be most available to those who have the skills of creativity, complex problem solving, people management skills and coding which unfortunately is only a small percentage of society. This is because SA has challenges educating and skilling for the current industry. Another contributing factor is that few people finish school and even fewer of those get post-matric training at a college or university. But, we are making good progress by introducing coding and digital skills earlier in schools. There will be more jobs lost as machines learn how to do more processes, but there will also be new opportunities in the jobs of the future. And, we must remember that all of these are tools that we can use to our advantage. Work that used to be done by humans was changed by the steam engine, then we had railroads and so on, and humans have always adapted. So, we must adapt and not be fearful. It’s also a good sign that SA is talking about and planning for the future of work.”