South Africa's Fourth Industrial Revolution

Will robots steal our jobs? Probably, but by so doing, robots will free humanity from the daily grind of poorly rewarding and unsatisfying labour, allowing human creativity to imagine and introduce new better jobs and social occupations. This can only be achieved if humanity is equipped with the critical thinking capability, and the 4IR technological tools to do so.

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South Africa's relationship with the 4IR: Discussion
UJ 4IR Discussion"We are now facing the fourth industrial revolution. The scope of the fourth industrial revolution is far beyond the previous digital or information revolutions. The fourth industrial revolution refers to a systemic transformation that impacts on civil society, governance structures, human identity, economics and manufacturing. It integrates human beings and machines, the physical and the cyber. The underlying technologies of the fourth industrial revolution are artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, nanotechnology, biotechnology, internet of things, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles and 3D printing. UJ has the highest concentration of staff with PhDs in AI on our continent and we are ready to tackle this new era."

The above article published by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is a clear demonstration of the intensifying discussion of the 4IR and its impacts in South Africa. Please click the image to access the original article. This discussion needs to be expanded far beyond the technological domains covered by the article - the "Human Side" of the 4IR must be seriously considered before it undermines all the significant benefits of the 4IR. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not a revolution at all. Technology is evolutionary in nature; today’s invention will inspire new innovators to change it into tomorrow’s technology in a full virtuous circle. These concepts were described in this modern era by the highly respected political economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883 – 1950) and his "Creative Destruction" theories, followed in more recent years by Clayton Christensen’s “Disruptive Innovation” theories. The “Revolution” in the 4IR is the “Social Revolution” that these technological evolutions will trigger, not the technologies themselves.
4IR Opportunities, Threats, Risks, Responses
Virtually all nations today, both developed and developing, must address the significant opportunities offered by the 4IR technologies, and the immense threats of societal disruption that may arise from attempts to introduce them. While disruptive innovations stemming from the 4IR must be embraced, the consequences of serious disruptive social impacts must be positioned at the forefront of the national conversation. Disruptive technological innovations will occur naturally as they always have, but disruptive societal consequences can reverse all the potential gains derived from such innovations. The South African 4IR conversation must change its focus towards the social compact between people and technology in order to address these seemingly opposing features of the 4IR. The following very brief notes are provided as a start to the intensification of this national conversation:
  • South Africa's sustainable development is severely threatened by the extremes of the Triple Threats of Inequality, Poverty and Unemployment. All the 4IR technological components have the potential of reducing these threats by providing autonomous machine-generated services in all segments and hierarchies of the population.
  • The high costs of labour, including the "human rights" components of that cost, can be easily reduced by replacing that labour with autonomous artificial intelligence machines (AI), enabling vast productivity increases.
  • Even very high-skill-demanding work can be replaced by "deep learning" AI machines, e.g., advanced analytics for medical services delivery (like Nicola the Pharmaceutical Drug Analyst); computer programming by autonomous machines which can learn and apply software development and programming faster and more effectively than humans can; remote management and maintenance of very large machines in the energy, mining and ICT sectors, etc. The need for high skilled labour may thus be reduced to the designers of the 4IR ecosystems;
  • All elements of the Human Hierarchy of Needs depicted in the "SAKAN Concept Paper" can be automated with relative ease, including the provision of the most basic needs of food, water and shelter demanded by South Africa's 55% socioeconomically excluded population.
  • In the very long term, the application of 4IR and beyond technologies can reduce the "unfreedoms" associated with the current global economic and social order.
All the above 4IR opportunities are limited by the decisions made by humans today on the transition from the traditional and current socioeconomic models to the new information and technology driven societies that are less dependent on human labour. This transition will be extremely difficult to achieve, yet failure to achieve it could result in severe social disruptions in the less technologically ready nations and societies.
  • Numerous social/cultural anthropologists suggest that the human species survived, and prospered, for over 200,000 years before the world of work and use of labour was introduced with the emergence of farming, some 12,000 years ago (please read an opinion piece here). This social "revolution" led to rapid population growth and labour intensification, reaching a global population of nearly 8 billion people today, and they all demand rewarding jobs across all social hierarchies. Could the rapidly evolving 4IR and beyond technologies be driving societies back towards a less labour intensive world in which human endeavour focuses more on the humanities than on the current materialism? If this is true, how can humanity manage this revolutionary transition that will most likely lead to significant social disruptions?
  • Job losses arising from any reason, including the 4IR, are major threats to national social stability. South Africa is especially vulnerable to this social revolutionary phenomenon.With the world record unemployment levels depicted in the SAKAN home page, and a massive population of unskilled or low skilled workers, the lack of 4IR readiness is a major threat to the nation's socio-political stability.
  • The 4IR will be exceptionally demanding on high levels of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) academic disciplines, and very high general literacy competencies to acquire these STEM competencies. The national education systems are not currently in a position to impart these skills at the requisite speed and quantity. This threat can best be minimized by using the 4IR technologies themselves to bridge the gap between the national skills needs and what the school systems can deliver.
  • The national "free market" economic model is inconsistent with the very high levels of inequality in all spheres that contribute to socioeconomic growth. The assumption that the benefits of economic growth will "trickle down" to the 55% economically marginalized population is unlikely to bridge the massive inequality, poverty and unemployment levels in the foreseeable future. The advent of the 4IR will most likely exacerbate this situation - South Africa has the technological competence for early adoption of all components of the 4IR, but as history has shown, the benefits of such early adoption will favour the wealthy, thus fueling further the deeply entrenched inequalities.
All the above 4IR opportunities are limited by the decisions made by humans today on the transition from the traditional socioeconomic models to the new information and technology driven societies that are less dependent on human labour. This transition will be extremely difficult to achieve in nations like South Africa due to the deep multifaceted inequalities, yet failure to achieve it could result in severe social disruptions. A short summary of the risks related to the 4IR follow:
  • South Africa has numerous programmes to combat inequality, poverty and unemployment, but the public perceptions that nothing or too little is being done poses the greatest risk of socio-political stability. The very frequent and often violent service delivery protests, the persistently high crime levels, and other related societal challenges are evidence of these perceptions.
  • The slow pace of development in the national education system, coupled with the acknowledged incompatibilities between the 4IR skills development demands and the traditional modes of education, form the second highest risk of failure to leverage the opportunities presented by the 4IR.
  • South Africa has numerous exceptionally successful educational establishments and technologically oriented innovation hubs that produce world standard results, but they are far too few in the face of extreme multifaceted inequalities. The welcome success stories from such establishments thus fuel inequality further, reversing the expected national gains from such successes. Massive scalability increases in these success stories must be targeted, but they are difficult to achieve.
  • Balancing the very high investment needs of national macro and micro economic growth with the even higher investments needed for the reduction of South Africa's Triple Threats is extremely difficult, yet failure to find this balance will fuel the already high levels of inequality further. Attempts to balance these competing investment needs introduces significant tensions between business, which must focus on free market forms of growth, and the public sector which must focus on both the macro and micro free market growth and the national socialist growth imperatives at the same time.
South Africa, like most other developing and fully developed nations, faces stark choices in this 4IR era: (a) adopt and apply the 4IR technologies for their massive productivity gains and accept that such adoption could lead to massive job losses during the transition phase; (b) favour the retention of traditional jobs over the automation of labour in the interests of national social stability, and become increasingly uncompetitive globally in this information-driven technological age; (c) adopt, adapt and apply the 4IR technologies directly to the alleviation of South Africa’s Triple Threats.
The last option is clearly the best for South Africa, it will require the following:
  • Challenge 1: Intensify public discourse to improve public understanding of all aspects of the 4IR. Communications must focus on building a national stakeholder consensus based on shared visions and missions, particularly between the seemingly antagonistic private and public sectors. Such consensus must actively reduce competing ideological positions – history has shown that ideological divisions to national problem solving can be both misleading and destructive. Action under any ideology has been shown to be the best approach that balances local capacities, energies and goodwill.
  • Challenge 2: The ICT industry and many related technologies have always leaned towards technological determinism. This should change to a strong social deterministic approach; South Africa’s challenges are almost wholly social, technology and finances have always been available, but the will and commitment by key stakeholders in both the private and public sectors to assign available resources to the triple threat challenges has proved elusive.
  • Challenge 3: Focus the 4IR national conversation directly on the most vulnerable segments of the South African population; the +63% of children living in poverty, and the +30 million citizens surviving on less than the nationally defined poverty lines. The creative instincts of the private sector will take care of the 4IR technological needs of the non-poor segments of society; the most valuable government intervention necessary will be to reduce regulatory barriers that may stifle these creative instincts while at the same time moving the national conversation towards addressing the immensely challenging socialist development agenda.
  • Challenge 4: Adopt a holistic approach that includes all elements and sub-elements of the Triple Threats, with direct application of technology to reduce them over a shorter time period. Much of the nation’s research focus must shift to applied direct action-oriented socialist-leaning research; there is already a wealth of knowledge accumulated over the whole history of humankind that warns our current generations of the dangers of doing nothing about the socialist challenges, and which suggests numerous models for proactive and productive interventions. This accumulated knowledge is seldom consulted or used, particularly in this era of instant information gratification through short message services and social media.
  • Challenge 5: The national educational ecosystems must be central to this transition to the 4IR: it is all about the creation of new skills that must themselves create the undefined 4IR jobs and/or jobless human occupations of the future. The interdependencies of all scientific disciplines must be recognized and fostered in both research and application; e.g., balancing free market economic models with socioeconomics to create new sustainable jobs from the technological transition, while at the same time creating new social structures for a jobless future that still demands goods and services produced by a very different kind of industry. These extremely challenging contradictions must be addressed. A national dialogue on the concept of a “Universal Basic Income (UBL)” must be intensified as a means to reduce South Africa’s current pre-4IR unemployment challenges while at the same time preparing for the post-4IR jobless society in a seamless development process.
Case studies: There are numerous case studies available of how South Africa's peer developed and developing nations deal with the 4IR transition. For example, Japan, with a declining and aging labour force must use its technological prowess to introduce all 4IR products and services as fast as they can, whereas Brazil, which faces unemployment challenges similar to South Africa's focuses on finding social solutions like the UBL and rapid reform of the education systems to reduce the risks of the 4IR. As part of the national dialogue, South Africa must review all available case studies, and develop virtuous circle models for immediate application with room for changes as the processes unfold.