Durban - Futuristic films pictured them decades ago: cars that drive themselves, robots serving tea in restaurants and even machines operating on patients in hospitals.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here and it will shake the essence of everything the human race has understood about its way of life and the world of work.
Artificial intelligence and machine-learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, genetics and biotechnology are just some of the buzzwords which have enraged labour unions and left economists and innovators gleaming with excitement.
South Africa would need to move fast to advance its technological might if it wanted to remain a player in the global economy, they have warned.
This week, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a Future of Jobs report that put a spotlight on the kind of impact the industrial revolution would have on the world of work.
According to the report, SA just like all other nations should expect “key disruptions on employment levels, skills sets and recruitment patterns”.
The impact of such a shake-up would however only be limited to how well the country prepared its industries, workers and citizens for the future.
It also indicated 65 percent of children entering primary school today would take up completely new work streams which did not yet exist.
This is, according to economists and innovators, where SA needs to concentrate its focus.
“I think the key is that we really need to put a bigger and better focus in educating people right from the onset and we know what the problems in education are and they are actually relatively easy to address from a logistical point of view but they are very difficult to address politically,” said Nedbank Group’s Chief Economist, Dennis Dykes.
Entrepreneur and Innovation consultant, Khathu Mashau’s organisation, Nunnovation Africa Foundation has already embarked on a nationwide drive called #WeInnovate, aimed at changing mind-sets of graduates and young entrepreneurs to start advancing towards new industries.
He explained that the time for action was now, as most sectors were already investing in the kind of technologies necessary to survive in the next phase of the global transition.
However this is not to say the country is stuck in the dark ages. Innovators and economists like Dykes believe SA is well placed to transition with the rest of the world. This also did not have to be to the detriment of any particular class in society, Dykes added.
There are fears that the poor and non-skilled would be plunged into even deeper deprivation with the rise of the digital era.
The National Union of Metalworkers of SA spelled out these fears during a briefing in Joburg this week.
The union, which organises workers in the metal, engineering and transport sectors, rejected the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Mashau said while the concerns were valid, given that indeed core sectors of the SA economy would probably suffer due to their labour-intensive nature, not all was lost.
“The ICT and logistics sectors would see much growth as a result of the ‘on demand economy’ the Fourth Industrial Revolution will introduce, however this would only benefit specialists in analytics meaning that there would be a need to up-skill entire workforces to contend with the requirements thereof,” said Mashau.
Dykes also explained that from an economic perspective the transition would be beneficial for all.
He demonstrated that if technology could transform business for unsophisticated farmers in rural areas through cellphones by providing on-hand information about markets and pricing, there would not be any losers in the real sense.
“I think one of our problems is we take really low skilled workers and we say they must immediately move to higher tech jobs. Unfortunately you can’t just skip the transition phase.”
You have to engage through things like tax policy, but also through labour policies so that they are attractive in the first place and then make those adjustments.
“The history of this type of technological development is that new jobs are created,” he said.
Government and business leaders who will be returning from Davos, where the WEF meeting was held this week, are expected to unpack just what the Fourth Industrial Revolution means to the country and its people.
Labour union, UASA has appealed to government to take the lead and prepare workers for this transition, while urging their colleagues in organised labour to drop their “protectionist” agenda and embrace change.