Technology is a wonderful thing, and version 4.0 in the cycle of revolutions carries a momentous weight since it is unfolding in a time of globalisation. Together, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and globalisation are forces of change that no government can ignore – and must treat responsibly.
4IR goes beyond advancements in manufacturing. It marries new technology with everyday life. Its smart, autonomous and able-to-communicate tools are already entrenched in the workplace, at home, in the area of play, and in health. Capabilities in robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are already causing a shift in real time; a shift in how things are produced, and how information is accessed.
4IR and all the technologies it incorporates are more accurate, and able to do more work in less time. Today’s technology means there are machines that can do the work of many people accurately while being predictable in carrying out those tasks, and executing them at speed.
Moreover, machines don’t require require food, sleep, tea breaks or leave – making them the ideal worker for many industries.
Artificial intelligence is driving machine learning in such a way that machines can do meticulous research and augment information while carrying out tasks that would normally take many people to do. One thinks of the work done by clerks in law firms throughout the world. In the future, a machine might replace humans in carrying out those tasks.
These advances will affect industries that are considered skilled, and not just low-skilled workers in labour-intensive sectors.
Industries that are assumed to be ‘safe’ may not be so secure.
Think of the many office workers in the banking, legal, health and call-centre industries; 4IR could potentially displace more white-collar workers than blue collar ones.
While the promise of 4IR excites me, I worry about South African politicians’ one-dimensional understanding of it. They seem to have latched onto the idea of 4IR as the ‘dawn’ of a new era of possibilities. They don’t listen or take note when being warned that it will bring negative changes, along with positive ones, to the labour market.
They see it as a magical solution to some of the structural problems in our society, but introducing coding in formal schooling won’t fix the glaring inadequacies in education infrastructure, the learning abilities of many school-going children, or our performace in the STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. Coding, despite its many capabilities and benefits, cannot fix poverty or a poor education system.
Government enthusiasm for 4IR reminds me of the decisions made by the people of the UK that led to Brexit – and how we should make sure we know what we’re dealing with. Watching British politicians trying to fix the Brexit mess is a valuable lesson for South African politicians.
4IR is a great development, but countries must prepare their workforces for it and be ready to deal with the negative results arising from it.
The UK situation serves as a cautionary tale for politicians not to simply buy into matters that appear simple yet can become a bigger problem.
Famed Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto taught us that changes that produce some winners and some losers are non-comparable, because they can be gauged based only on personal value by the observer.
In the broader picture of the common good – and however well-meaning government is when it comes to 4IR – it must tread carefully and consider the negative effects that may arise thoroughly. Unlike advanced economies that can handle the changes of 4IR, government must be careful that it does not adopt a policy that creates few gainers and many losers.