Embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution

It seems like everywhere you look people are talking about the fourth industrial revolution. So what exactly is it? 

girl with a cellphone

Listen to Wednesday's The Good, The Bad, and Ugly or read the details under the podcast

When we were at school we studied history and learned about the industrial revolution, and then we had the information revolution, with the emergence of the internet and now we’re on the brink of the fourth industrial revolution.

I guess in simplest terms, it’s about the about the advancement of technology and how it’s influencing the way in which we live and work in the future. And it’s exponentially changing that. New technologies are rapidly rising and these enable us to automate certain work processes that blend the physical, the digital and the biological; they call it the cyber-physical world.

For example, you already see people wearing these nifty watches that track your footsteps every day and tests your heart rate, and that influences behaviour. Many medical aid schemes want their clients to reach ten thousand steps a day and so on. And this pretty soon will be integrated into the biological system.

But on a simpler note, things like simple automation of manufacturing processes means that the kinds of skills that we need are less about doing routine repetitive tasks, and people would need to be able to think critically and solve problems.

The World Economic Forum put out a study of 21st Century skills which are needed. They said that schools need to be preparing young people to have these kinds of skills because you don’t necessarily need to know how to do things that computers will be able to do for us in the future. But they need to be able to live in a world which is ever-changing. So the kinds of skills young people would need for the future would be critical thinking, how to collaborate with others, how to communicate effectively, solve problems and be flexible and adaptable.

One of the things you often hear people say with regard to the fourth industrial revolution is that children of today will possibly change jobs about ten times in the future because the world is changing. There are jobs today that didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago, for example, an emerging career option for a drone pilot. You never had them before – we never had drones so we never had drone pilots. Now we have drones; a small light-weight aircraft that can fly around and take videos or deliver parcels. So lots of exciting new technologies, but what does it mean for ordinary people who don’t have the skills to fit into that new world?

That’s the big concern for South Africa as a country; we’ve already got problems with our education system and maths, science, technology and engineering, how do we then respond to this rapidly changing world?

The world is going to be more automated. It’s going to be driven by artificial intelligence. So take a radio station for example, how does that affect us? DJ’s could well become obsolete because what you would have is a Siri-type virtual presenter who would be able to link the songs with nice colour commentary and be able to read promos and adverts and things like that. If you look at Google, they recently tested out their Google Assistant taking a phone call from somebody wanting to book an appointment at a hair salon. So a real, live person calls the salon to make an appointment to have her hair done and the virtual assistant handled the entire conversation. The person who called in actually had an accent but the virtual assistant handled it perfectly well. So that kind of AI is already in place and it’s getting better and better. This means that even a receptionist then becomes at risk of being replaced.

The concern is that this kind of thinking is going to put a lot of people out of work. So how do we respond? We have to make sure that people have different skills. It’s literally a case of human versus robot. People are going to have to re-skill themselves in some way.

The Department of Science and Technology has just approved its white paper on innovation and technology and a lot of it deals with how we respond to that. And it’s not only countries in Africa that are faced with this; the whole world is facing this challenge. So how do we respond to increasing automation, increasing use of artificial intelligence in business, in manufacturing and so on? We might be burdened with a bigger problem because we’re still trying to deal with backlogs. But it’s not unique to South Africa or Africa or the developing world.

The thing is: we don’t have a choice. We have to be ready for this. There are lots of disruptive technologies out there already. Look at Uber for example. When they came in, the idea of being able to hail a cab using an app and crowdsourcing a ride disrupted the metered taxi industry. And the question is: do we protect certain industries against new technologies or do we somehow enable those industries to be more responsive. Education is also being disrupted; we see lots of online training programmes at the moment so we actually don’t know what the future of higher education is going to look like. There are some reports out there that say it will be obsolete in maybe twenty years.

This fourth industrial revolution will affect our lives in a big way because we won’t be able to get those jobs that involve doing something repetitive and low skilled – the skills that are going to be in demand are in IT and coding so we need to really push from those fronts. I know that there’s a big drive at the moment to push on coding education, so getting kids to start coding using things like MIT Scratch to learn basic coding principles so they understand how to solve problems and write computer programmes. That’s what’s going to drive job creation.

At the lower skill level jobs like cashiers, tollbooth operators and if you look at the mechatronic side of things, basic assembly jobs could be affected. But if you look at the other side of things there are jobs that we would consider skilled jobs for example in the legal sector, in New York they have been using AI quite extensively already. It’s called Blue IQ, which is a fancy computer with a massive neural network, brain-type thing that can review legal case history and make recommendations or judgements based on the data that it presents. It has the capacity to process large amounts of information and draw conclusions from that.

So it’s no longer about processing power, it’s about using neural networks where computers actually learn to think and learn to make decisions by analysing large data sets and previous behaviour in order to make simulated intelligent decisions. It’s actually simulating how the human brain would function.

So if we look at the higher level skills which we presume to be lawyers and accountants, we find that there are lots of automated cloud-based accounting software now already, which will draw up a set of books for you just by analysing your bank statements without you having to have a bookkeeper capture all that information. It draws the information out of your bank and will pretty much automate large parts of that task. And ultimately this is a good thing because it frees us up to do other things.

Hopefully, if we can always keep at the back of our minds the issue of equity and social justice when these things are implemented, then we’ll be able to ensure that the fruits of greater technological advancement and automation, will give us more leisure time, a better level of productivity, higher growth and more income as a country. And we can then take that and put it into social services, education and health care so that people have a better quality of life.

Ultimately, wouldn’t you like to live in a world where the drudge work is done for you, but you still have the ability to earn an income so that you can have quality of life?

Do you believe that the fourth industrial revolution will improve our lives or will it simply put people out of jobs and ruin the economy?

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts.

Main Image Courtesy of Pexels

Show's Stories