After interacting with more than 1000 pupils, I found that the vast majority of them were clueless about technology and the impact it’s having on their lives and future careers.
I began every presentation by posing the questions: “What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” and “What is artificial intelligence?” to the pupils, and of all those I spoke to, only three could give me a satisfactory answer.
This experience, similar to my experiences in other parts of the country, is a bleak indicator of the future of technology and careers in South Africa. If our young minds, those who are supposed to drive future innovation and technological advancement in our country, our future tech entrepreneurs, are oblivious to what is going on in the fast-paced world of technology, how will South Africa compete in the global economy, let alone be a leader?
They will probably go out into the world and be faced with a bitter reality - that their counterparts in other countries are far more prepared than them for this new world.
This experience is particularly disturbing when we consider countries such as the US, Turkey, Singapore and India, where children are learning about technology, with a particular focus on coding and robotics, from primary school level.
On a recent trip to Istanbul, I met a group of high school students who were building an electric car from the ground up, and another group who were building a drone out of scrap materials. Yet another group had developed a mosquito repellent. So effective is this spray-on repellent that they not only won an award, but have begun to commercialise their product and sell it to countries in Africa.
How ironic that what should have been an African product developed by African people to solve a typically African problem, was developed elsewhere, and sold back to us. This is an all too familiar scenario.
My second finding was that the majority of pupils were set on “traditional” careers paths: medicine, law, accounting and engineering. Few were considering careers in technology.
Most shocking, though, was that most girls felt there was no place for them in the world of technology. This is disturbing, considering the fact that career options in the “traditional” paths are diminishing thanks to technology, while careers in tech are on a massive growth spurt. Today there are systems emerging that can do much of the work of doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, dentists, accountants and engineers.
An artificial intelligence system called LawGeex recently beat a group of highly qualified and experienced lawyers at their own game.
With advancements like these, children should be more focused on career paths more in tune with the technological advancements of the next decade. And these careers are not just in the tech field, but in a host of other fields which, unfortunately, our pupils are not considering.
If we are to fix this, we need, in the short term, an intense nationwide campaign to enlighten teachers and pupils on the topic of technology, and to encourage more young people to start thinking about careers in technology. Above all, we need more girls to shed their previous misconceptions and get into IT careers.
In the long term, we need to incorporate technology into the curriculum from the primary school level. If we want the economy to survive 4IR, there is no alternative.
* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.