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White collar work is going to be affected by 4IR

South Africa, be warned – you won’t like it.
Technological advances could result in skilled as well as unskilled job losses, and won't necessarily solve persistent socio-economic problems. Picture: Shutterstock

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.

Pandora’s Box

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.

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I is not an event but rather a process that is currently in progress. Governments have very little influence to bear on technology advancements.

Taday, if you don’t have a smartphone and data, you already have problems.

The area that government must be involved in is proper education, specifically of children in their formative years. Not the sub-standard being dished out currently and being hobbled – in some cases to a standstill – by the numerous incompetent teachers and their unions. Quality education must be the focus. The level of education will not change when more money is thrown at it.

It is not the government’s prerogative to decide what we learn. They should in no way be involved in education, perhaps at the very least provide vouchers for the statist-minded people out there. Education, like with healthcare and transport, is best left to the private sector.

This would have been news 20 years ago.

Since then even IT jobs have disappeared i.e network and database administrators.

A Countless number of lawyers and bank teller jobs have been replaced with online apps.

When Elon Musk gets it right, truck drivers and taxi drivers will become redundant as well.

Unfortunately in sunny SA most people including ANC officials and Unions have not even reached the first IR which was steam or was it writing. So there is no danger of reaching no 4 in the next 100 years or so.

Hmm…as a white collar worker myself, 4IR could help my income tax practice: instead of doing the tedious slog of ITR12-tax returns, the simpler returns can be done by an 4IR system, while I focus on the more complex returns, and SARS Disputes where one needs to apply one’s mind.

Then I can get more work done in a day! (without paying someone a salary, but paying off the software cost instead)

Please, can a 4IR machine come and visit me for an interview? I suppose I won’t need to make coffee for this visiting system, which also helps. If I accept the prposal, can this system install itself on my PC, without the need for a physical IT-person as representative, that will need a sales commission?

I know you are trying to be sarcastic, but imagine if one of your competitors invests in a fancy software doing tax preparation. This software will be able to answer the phone or more probably video chat online using an image of a senior accountant which does not even have to exist in reality, only as an avatar. The software could chat to a dozen people this way simultaneously, increasing your competitor’s customer base ten or even hundred folds. You would probably lose lot of your clients, maybe even go out of business. Of course if you would do this before your competitors, they would be in trouble, either way several accountants will be out of work. This probably will not happen in my lifetime (I am over 70), but I would not advise a youngster to go into accounting.

Fears of the “4th Industrial Revolution”, a name I don’t agree with, I prefer to think about this as just more progress, more development towards increasing our productiveness. Just the next step, as there will be many more to come.

If you were to simply look at the bigger picture, productivity as a result increases. What matters is not the relative piece of the pie that a company, person or country gets, but the absolute piece thereof.

There will be birthing pains, but for the time being, prostitution is still a job only those with real flesh bodies can do, so ironically the oldest career might also be the last to go…

All jokes on a side though, when you have productivity increasing the labour will be available for more developmental jobs. Accounting after all, is a very rigid system for example, and except in extraordinary cases, does one need special gymnastics and true insight to actually do the job. (Nothing against accountants, many careers are like this)

I suspect the focus will be to move into technology development and research, specifically engineering, as it is one of the few branches of science that has given us the previous revolutions.

There will be many more revolutions to come, I see no need for unnecessary fearmongering, just because the people writing the articles, happen to be next in line to be automated away. They happily wrote about the automation of other fields in the past, its harder being on the receiving end of that. Of course, it is reasonable to assume that all field will to some extent, not all, be automated to such an extent.

@Murdakah My problem is not with change but with disappearing job opportunities. You write: “I suspect the focus will be to move into technology development and research, specifically engineering”.
Who will be able to do these jobs? Certainly not 90% of the SA youngsters who are hopelessly behind the world in maths and science.

I must agree with your statement that most politicians don’t understand what AI is and what the so called 4th Industrial Revolution is understood to be.
I am 100% convinced that the bulk of them don’t even know what the elements of the 1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions were and what the impact was over time.
Somebody coins a phrase in our country and the next thing everybody uses the jargon without having a clue.
It could have been funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

Most people are categorically moronic. Even more so in SA, sadly.

It appears to be on nobody’s radar that crypto currencies ( miscalled) are a huge part of the 4IR.

Global, distributed and permissionless, they can dis-intermediate banks, insurance companies, governments ( how governments hate things that don’t need their permission – and how banks hate anything that can destroy them) as well as businesses like Uber and Facebook.

They are the business model of the future and are to the current set up as Airbnb is to the hotel industry.

Like much AI they will make life a pleasure for consumers but hell for all middle men.

How on earth we think that South Africa is well poised for this kind of shows me we don’t have a clue about what the 4IR actually is.

….no more than we seem to have any clue of how to get coal to a power station.

So good article with the correct perception that this will create a few big winners, will do wonders for consumers, but will do absolutely nothing for unskilled manual labour, which is already doomed anyway ( that was the first and second IR) and will now hit white collar jobs.

“Moreover, machines don’t require require food, sleep, tea breaks or leave – making them the ideal worker for many industries”

Thus they do not consume.

I am sure I am not the only one seeing that right there is the problem in itself.

What happens if 4IR reach critical mass? When there is no one left to consume the very product/service these machines are so effectively and efficiently produce.

And if protests in SA is what it is at 35% unemployment. What will happen if wordwide unemployment is 50%+. Maybe the machines are coming and James Cameron had some pretty disturbing foresight.

Sorry mate, the flag-wavers, ditch diggers and car guards will not be unemployed by this process, they will become unemployable. Essentially if one really looks at this with real courage, SA will have approx. 30 m unemployable people in the next 20 years and its not that there won’t be work, there will be NO NEED for them to work! A very different story. What to do? Nothing, its too late, they have no skills and never will have. SA is doomed by this (& a few other things like industrial level corruption and soon-to-be-released tribal genocide). My own view is that 4IR will cause Africa to be re-colonised by multi-nationals and will in fact simply become one huge consumer market, with a trade deficit of unspeakably large proportions and a net offering to the world economy (apart from being consumers) of close to zero.

End of comments.


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