Johannesburg - All the buzz this week has been around the annual World Economic Forum, being held in Davos, and its implications for SA, Africa and the world.
It’s probably THE event for world and business leaders to attend to get an idea of what themes will set the global agenda for 2016.
Apparently, more than 2 500 delegates from around the world are attending the event, with about 80 or so having flown in from SA. South Africa makes up the bulk of the contingent from Africa and is keen to show the world that we are open for business, despite the current global economic woes.
The theme of this year’s meeting, which kicked off on Wednesday and ends tomorrow, is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That’s the stage we will enter into next, and it builds on the current PC-led Internet revolution.
It doesn’t sound like much of a change on the face of it, but to use a woefully inaccurate cliche, it’s a quantum shift that will affect all of us.
Already, the World Economic Forum is predicting that the shift to a totally technologically-led economy will cost the globe 5 million jobs by 2020 - that’s a mere four years away. Eek.
Just how much of an impact this will have on SA is yet to be seen, but we can hardly afford to lose more jobs. The International Labour Organisation warned just the other day that we stood to lose 300 000 jobs this year. With unemployment still at around a quarter - officially - of the working population, that’s a big ouch.
But it’s coming; maybe not in my generation, but it will land, and it will affect our children.
Power to the PC
The key issue behind the fourth revolution is the rise of computing power. Think big data combined with social media and mobile technology and increased computing power in the cloud, and you get to Gartner’s Nexus prediction of where the IT sector is going.
That, simply put, is taking information such as where you are located, what you put on the Internet and what you bought the last time you went to Woolies, putting it all in a huge processor that you access via the cloud and using it to do things like send you promotions when you’re 20m away from the nearest shop.
It’s already happening. What do you think Pick n Pay does with all the information it gathers from Smart Shopper cards? Or, for that matter, Discovery with the data it collects when you install a tracking device in your car as part of its insurance offering.
They both use the information to target consumers better, to customise offerings - like Discovery Insure offering driver behaviour-based premiums.
Add more smart to that equation and it starts to get scary. Oral B has a smart toothbrush. It connects to an app on your phone to tell you how well, or not, you are brushing. That data lives in the cloud.
As much as Oral B denied to me - at last year’s Mobile World Congress - that they attach personal identifiers to this data, this is possible. In theory, they could well know who I am, and then sell that data to my medical aid, which will then push up the premiums I’m paying because my teeth are at risk of falling out. They aren’t, but you get the picture.
George Orwell may well have been right, just a few decades out and a hang of a lot more paranoid than I think will be the case.
Add automation to that and you get very, very, clever robots. Robots are no longer the domain of science fiction, they’re here, and in a very real way. Bicentennial man is not just a maybe anymore, it’s going to be a reality soon.
And that’s where the job losses will come from... when a robot can build cars, and write columns, and retailer check-outs are automated.
Not yet, not this generation even maybe, but perhaps it will affect our kids.
I look at how my little one has taken to tech. There’s a reason we have a “no screen” rule on school nights. She took to a tablet at about two and is now insisting I download games for her to play on her laptop.
Just the other day, she came home from school and asked to watch educational videos on YouTube. She will be fully okay with the concept of a robot that can cook. Me, not so much.
Nor, for that matter, will the economy be okay with that. We simply aren’t geared up for that sort of future. We rely heavily on human capital and not automation or mechanisation.
We need to make a move, and we need to do it now (let’s ignore the fact that I’ve been writing about this pending future for about five years already in my former position).
If we don’t, we’ll lose out any chance we have to create new careers and, in so doing, jobs.
We all need to listen very, very carefully to what’s coming out of Davos.
* Nicola Mawson is the online editor of Business Report. Follow her on Twitter @NicolaMawson or Business Report @busrep.