File Photo: African News Agency (ANA)
Knowledge institutions, much as universities, research and policy institutions as well as think tanks, must always locate their work in the past historical context, current realities and future trends that may carve the path of future trajectories.

These assist institutions to have a meaningful relationship between ideas and realities, thus assisting learners, public policymakers and industries as well as society in the quest for deeper understanding and in providing solutions to current and emerging challenges.

Essentially, the current epoch is characterised by exponential growth of computing technologies that is integrating a significant number of human functions and this is expressed prominently in artificial intelligence and machine-learning, nanotechnologies and biotechnologies. Conventionally, this epoch is named the 4th Industrial Revolution (4th IR).

Convergence and mutually reinforcing computer speed, power and significantly reduced data storage costs provide infinite possibilities that will improve human efficiency and productivity while at the same time potentially having a massive disruptive impact.

The 4th IR is a double-edged sword that has positive and negative aspects that need equal attention, and universities are best positioned to do that if they are responsive and agile.

Our government ought to be commended for its policy and programme initiatives to embrace and mainstream the 4th IR, as seen in the establishment of a task team led by our colleague, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, and the plan to introduce programmes on computer-related science and technology at basic education levels up to high school. Universities must also review curriculum, research, service-delivery models as well as pedagogy.

Some overemphasise the virtues of the 4th IR in terms of functions and efficiencies that will transcend human beings whereas others often fear the worst such as jobs being taken by machines or robots or violation of several ethical issues. Some also think that the 4th IR is an exclusive terrain of science and engineering to the exclusion of humanities and social sciences.

These themes suggest a strong need for a multidisciplinary approach with human sciences playing a meaningful role rather than the subservient role that they have played so far in the space of science and technology.

Unisa, a comprehensive e-learning mega-institution, is already exploring numerous opportunities which will make its organisational model more effective, responsive and efficient.

Makhanya is principal and vice-chancellor of Unisa.

The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media.