South Africa's Trade and Industry Minister Dr Rob Davies in Davos. PHOTO: Lindiz van Zilla/ANA

Davos-Klosters - There will be "serious winners and losers" as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and South Africa needs to be properly prepared and positioned to reap the benefits, or be saddled with the negative consequences.

This was according to Trade and Industry Minister Dr Rob Davies who said that emerging technologies have the capacity to benefit humanity in all sorts of ways, "reducing low-skilled back-breaking useless toil and replacing it with something more satisfying".

But Davies, who is part of the South African delegation in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF), warned that "in a world with inequalities, this requires high levels of technological literacy. 

"We could be facing serious winners and losers and people are saying we don't know yet,"he said. "We don't know yet what the job implications are going to be. Lower skilled people are going to find it more difficult to get jobs, small businesses may find it easier to enter markets because the technology required may require less sunken capital to get into a line of activity."

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Davies cited the recent WEF report Country Readiness for Future of Production which listed South Africa at 45th in the world and first in Africa, just ahead of Egypt in 46th place.

"We are in the category called nascent", Davies said. 

Davies said that in terms of the BRICS countries, South Africa followed China which placed fifth, India and Russia which were 30th and 35th respectively, and Brazil which was 41st.

"There are a whole lot of things the reports cite which we take pretty seriously. Where we are good is on science and innovation and adoption of technologies, where we are not so good is on maths literacy, science education and skills development which I think we all already know.

"Government is looking at the implications of these technological changes and ensuring that our country is as prepared as it can be so that we can reap the benefits, while minimising the challenges. And there will be challenges and disruptions, there will be challenges because that is what this technology is all about. So we are learning about that."

The WEF 2018 theme is a Shared Future in a Fractured World and Davies said "many of those fractures derive from digital technologies that we need to wake up to".

He cited the recent examples of sports brand Adidas moving some of its production back to its home base of Germany from low-wage economies in Asia "because they said artificial intelligence and 3D printing had reduced the cost of production more than the low wages".

He added: "Amazon has launched a shop that is not just self-service tills, but no till at all. You walk in with an app, you take the stuff, you walk out and they charge your account. Now what is going to happen to people who are shop tillers? Many of our jobs are in service sectors and the whole sale and retail trade. What is going to happen? 

"We have to smell the coffee and know that this is happening and we have to be prepared for it," he said. "If we don't, we are going to reap more of the negatives than the positives."

"There are some really, really big questions that we are grappling with and will be grappling with in the decades ahead," he said. "We need skills development and the right kind of skills."

Davies said one of the WEF sessions he attended on Tuesday spoke of university students in Singapore who are studying English literature but being required to also do a course in digital literacy as part of their study programme. 

"These are the things we are going to have to grapple with as we move ahead," he added. 

"How do we measure it to see how we can increase our performance and our preparation."

African News Agency/ANA