JOHANNESBURG - What does the Fourth Industrial Revolution mean to you? Is 4.0 just another buzzword or are you one of those new adapters who can’t wait for change and are already ahead of the curve, wired up to the Internet of Things?
The truth is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, when humanity and technology merge in ways that previously only existed in the imagination of novelists and the minds of film-makers, is already upon us.
Smartphones are ubiquitous; they help us communicate across a plethora of internet-based platforms, while controlling our homes remotely. Those very communication platforms that we are not just besotted with but addicted to are already driven by artificial intelligence, deciding on our past likes and dislikes, what we should see and who we should hear from.
We use our phones to book flights, order taxis - or use those same taxis to fetch our food. We no longer step into banks, but bank online off those same phones. We no longer buy newspapers. We no longer use accounts come tax season but rather Sars' e-filing’s self-service portal.
What of doctors, of lawyers? Sadly, we’ll always have politicians, but what about the rest? Typewriter technicians, shorthand typists, typesetters and hot-metal compositors have already gone the way of the dodo. We don’t know who will be next.
What we do know is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or in this case South Africa 4.0, will have half the number of jobs that we have today by 2030. This isn’t idle speculation - we see Moore’s Law in action in front of our very eyes, in our homes and in our pockets literally as the price of technology halves while its capacity doubles.
It’s a terrifying spectacle in an environment where populations are growing exponentially every year - India and China will flood the workplace with a billion new job seekers between now and 2030, Africa alone will release 11 million young aspirant employees every year between now and then. World Bank economist Jieun Choi believes the global economy will have to create at least 600 million new jobs, but where? This is a challenge that my colleagues and I at Duke CE grapple with every day.
The University of Johannesburg’s Professor Tshilidzi Marwala believes there is an urgent need to understand and master the opportunities 4.0 offers, especially as Africans. “We were objects of the first, second and third industrial revolutions, not subjects of these revolutions. It is imperative that we become equal participants in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
"The colonisation of our continent by the Europeans was precisely because we were objects of the First Industrial Revolution. There can never be the African renaissance unless we are active agents of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
Another great son of South Africa, entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk, is a lot less sanguine. He believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution is as great a threat to humanity as the Ice Age was to the dinosaurs - unless it is managed properly.
Is anyone managing it properly? South Korea is, according to Choi. There the government is actively working with all the relevant parties to find ways to make 4.0 work to their advantage, whether by re-gearing existing infrastructure or constructing it from scratch or getting computer education introduced into academic curricula as early as the primary education phase.
History has shown us that machines are tactical but humans are strategic. Humans make the difference.
Anthony Petrucci, a corporate communications expert at a US tech company, believes the artificial intelligence that underpins the entire Fourth Industrial Revolution should neither define nor replace us. Technology is neither good nor bad, but rather reflects on the nature of the person using it or letting it loose via automation. “Just as the internet has done for the past two decades, (AI) can reveal as much moral clarity as it can moral depravity,” he writes.
So, what are we doing in the face of this life-changing moment? What should we be doing? What can you do to make a difference, not just because of altruism answering President Cyril Ramaphosa’s call to create jobs but because of the sheer pragmatism of economic survival, not for your children but for you in the mid- to short-term future? Whatever it is, don’t delay. The future has arrived.
Sharmla Chetty is Duke CE’s president for Africa and global managing director for Africa and Europe. Twitter: @SharmlaC
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.