Photo: Reuters
JOHANNESBURG - The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is presenting us with unparalleled technological progress, which leads to both considerable opportunities and challenges.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, quantum computing, bioengineering and robotics are creating realities that were previously perceived as impossible. These realities are disrupting business and with that also the future of work.

History has taught us that with each of the first three industrial revolutions came major shifts in social, economic and political systems that significantly and permanently altered the course of humanity.

The 4IR is no different, and just as the second industrial revolution changed the nature of work from the farm to the factory, the 4IR will again change the nature of work and the skills required.

Experts vary greatly regarding the effect of the 4IR on the labour market, but according to some studies up to 60percent of current jobs could be lost due to the automation of manual processes, AI and robotics. And as technology accelerates, so will automation and the replacement of human workers.

Until now popular belief was it will be mostly the less-skilled and blue collar workers performing repetitive work who are prone to lose their job due to automation. Typical workers in danger are for example truck and cab drivers who are being replaced by self-driving vehicles, as well as factory and farm workers who are being replaced by machines and robots.

Although the 4IR and automation will have a dramatic impact on less-skilled workers, it is becoming clearer that due to the continuing advances in AI, white-collar jobs are just as threatened.

In a new Brookings Institution report of November 20, AI’s future impact on professional people such as managers, supervisors and analysts are described. According to them people with bachelor’s degrees would be exposed to AI five times more than employees with only a high school degree.

Many jobs entailing maths, science, technology and business roles, for instance operating a power plant to ensure maximum energy efficiency, managing a web advertising campaign to minimise the cost per click, analysing case law, or recognising patterns in medical diagnosis, are precisely the aspects in which AI are much better than human beings.

Just as automation and robotics are changing the production world, so will AI change the office environment.

The ability of AI to interpret voice commands, recognise complex images, handle large amounts of data, make predictions, solve problems, take difficult decisions and learn by itself, places a large number of jobs in danger, ranging from radiologists and other medical specialists, to bankers, legal professionals, social workers and marketing experts.

Many highly skilled professionals could find themselves in future in dramatically diminished roles. Except for very senior employees, since research by the Brookings Institute indicated AI would not affect the highest-paid workers such as C-level employees.

One of the specialist areas in which AI image recognition plays a major role is radiology. AI algorithms are highly accurate in the recognising of patterns on X-rays and CT scans, which is widely used all over the world to detect tuberculosis and other health conditions with accuracy rates well above 90percent.

In finance, financial algorithms are widely used to manage loans, portfolios and the trading on stock exchanges, as well as to assess investment risk and ensure compliance with numerous regulations. Recently this has led to several staff cuts in the financial and banking sector in South Africa.

The human resources field has also not escaped the impact of AI. Many organisations are using AI software to screen, shortlist and select the best candidates. Algorithms are also increasingly used to analyse and assess videos of applicant interviews.

After the analysis, the AI software creates a profile based on thousands of criteria, such as word choice, non-verbal communication, mannerisms and tone of voice. Many global companies are using AI software and were able to significantly reduce their human resources staff component.

In the field of law AI is used to simultaneously detect errors in contracts within seconds with an accuracy of 94percent. This particular task, which took the computer a mere 26 seconds, took a group of 20 lawyers 92 minutes to complete with an accuracy of only 85percent.

Even more astounding is that researchers from the University College of London used AI to predict the outcome of several hundred cases judged at the European Court of Human Rights.

The algorithm has a success rate of 79percent. Many jobs - now performed by junior legal professionals - will gradually be replaced by AI.

But, even though AI may replace many white-collar jobs, it is also true that in many cases AI will complement certain jobs rather than replacing them. However, even this requires a new skill set and new competencies.

This is becoming such a critical skill for many jobs of the future that some universities require all students to take a computational thinking course.

Unfortunately this preparation has not yet started at educational facilities in South Africa.

It is becoming clearer that no employee, whether blue or white collar, is immune to the impact of the 4IR, automation and AI in the workplace. It is only the workers with extensive education and more diverse skills that will be better prepared to navigate the major shifts that the 4IR will bring.

And while writing this in the dark of Stage 6 power cuts, it may perhaps not be such a bad idea to replace some employees by AI!

Professor Louis C H Fourie is a futurist and technology strategist. [email protected]

BUSINESS REPORT