You are currently viewing our desktop site, do you want to download our app instead?
Moneyweb Android App Moneyweb iOS App Moneyweb Mobile Web App

NEW SENS search and JSE share prices

More about the app

Rise of the machines

Machines, computers, robots and artificial intelligence have been ‘stealing’ jobs for decades.
Image: Shutterstock

In a certain sense it was unfortunate that the strike the SA Society of Bank Officials (Sasbo) called to protest against the growing trend to replace human workers with technology did not go ahead as planned at the end of September.

Nothing came of the plan to strike at a later date after Business Unity SA (Busa) got a court interdict to stop the strike.

Read: Court blocks biggest bank strike since 1920

A general strike by a large proportion of bank employees, of all the banks country-wide, would have made a very interesting case study, to see how banks would have worked for a few days if humans left the task up to basements full of computers and cellphone apps. It would have been an experiment that no individual bank could replicate.

The trigger for the strike was the announcements by several banks that they would close more branches and reduce staff by the thousands, while their results showed that more and more people are using electronic banking either through automated teller machines, the internet or mobile apps. Most people only enter a physical bank if something goes wrong with their bank cards or online access to their bank accounts.

Bank employees called the strike to get banks to explain their strategy with regards to the so-called fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and get a commitment from banks to safeguard jobs.

In reality, machines have been ‘stealing’ banking jobs from humans for decades. It started in the banking industry in all earnest when Standard Bank installed its first Autobank ATM in April 1981. There are currently over 30 000 ATMs in SA, which work mostly 24 hours every day, probably replacing 150 000 tellers.

Read: Creative destruction in our banking industry

But the stage was set for this trend centuries before. Machines have been reducing the workload for humans since the start of the original Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s. Tractors, bulldozers and increasingly sophisticated construction and agricultural machinery have replaced thousands of labourers and their picks and shovels.

Programmable robots build better cars, and do it faster and cheaper than teams of artisans. Better technology makes service intervals longer and on-board intelligence and a laptop cuts service times and ultimately, the number of technicians needed in the industry.

The list of examples of machines taking over jobs is endless. Laser-cut technology produces better boats, kitchen cupboards and musical instruments than the best craftsman can make by hand.

Last year, a Dutch company, MX3D, used a 3D printer to print a steel pedestrian bridge of 12 metres, to span a canal in Amsterdam.

Machines, especially artificial intelligence, are increasingly replacing more than only menial and physical labour. Not long ago, an airliner needed four crew members in the cockpit – a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and a navigational and communications officer. Smarter equipment has cut it to two pilots. Some high-performance smaller aeroplanes competing with business jets, like the Pilatus PC-12, only need one pilot.

Personally, my house doctor is He/she/it explains symptoms better than most doctors and costs nothing. A second opinion is a Google search away, also for free. A human doctor is down the road if physical maintenance on one of my parts is necessary.

Furthermore, the effect of programme trading on financial markets has been blamed for corrections in stock markets since the 1980s and asset managers are moving towards using more artificial intelligence to advise clients, dubbed robo-advisors.

It is noticeable that local retailers, such as Builders Warehouse, Pick n Pay and Woolworths, are actively advertising their online services. It is even more apparent that the online ‘salesman’ knows the products better and can give better advice than the human on the shop floor.

Specialised online publisher Computer Hope recently compiled a long lists of jobs that are being taken over by computers and robots, or that very soon will be. It includes:

  • Assembly-line and factory workers
  • Bank tellers and clerks
  • Phone operators and receptionists
  • Cashiers in shops
  • Warehouse-moving and -packing workers
  • Analysts, researchers and journalists
  • Stock traders
  • Postal workers
  • Doctors, anaesthetists and surgeons
  • Soldiers and guards
  • Travel agents
  • Chefs and cooks
  • Typists and secretaries
  • Garden and house workers
  • Bus-, truck-, train- and taxi drivers


“A robot can work 24/7 with little to no pay or benefits and is often faster than a human with fewer errors,” according to Computer Hope. “Robots can also be helpful to employees as they can easily do jobs that are repetitive, monotonous or dangerous and leave the interesting jobs to the humans.”

Most homes in SA are already packed with labour-saving machines that make full-time employees the exception rather than the rule. Anything from a myriad of gardening tools to automatic washing machines, dishwashers and small roving vacuum cleaners have reduced the demand for a domestic worker to a few days a week, instead of for a full 40-hour week.

Airports, hotels and fast-food restaurants have been installing self-service terminals over the last few years. Airlines offer passengers the option to book seats online, while passengers flying from most international airports in Europe would apply the various stickers to their luggage themselves and see it disappear down a chute without the help of an airline employee, hopefully to the right aeroplane.

However, there are still glitches.

Sometimes robots have been found to be lacking the right social graces and communication abilities to do certain jobs. The Japanese Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki made the headlines in 2015 for employing mostly robots instead of people.

It made headline again in 2018 when it ‘fired’ most of the robots for not doing their work properly.

The Henn na Hotel (meaning weird hotel) originally employed 243 robots to check in guests, clean rooms, carry luggage and answer queries. However, guests soon started to complain, while the robots’ human counterparts complained that the robots increased their workload.

Some robots were, in fact, replaced by guests’ own ‘personal assistant’ – the very clever smartphones that do a lot of work for all of us on a daily basis.

Technology has surreptitiously taken over many little jobs and functions in our lives, changing the 4IR to a rapid evolution.

Please consider contributing as little as R20 in appreciation of our quality independent financial journalism.



Sort by:
  • Oldest first
  • Newest first
  • Top voted

You must be signed in to comment.


Striking for job security is like cutting your wrist to stop the bleeding on your leg. Trustworthiness and value-adding lead to job security. Militant labour action destroys trust and value, and therefore it also destroys jobs. The South African employment figures prove this point.

It gets worse when the coercive labour unions use their leverage on the leading populist political party to make laws lead to legalised plunder. This general idea that an employee has a right to his job, that the job belongs to him, is a destructive fallacy. A job is simply an opportunity to add value, and that opportunity can disappear much faster than it appears.

When the quest for job security is supported by the legislature and enforced by the judiciary en militant labour unions, without the same amount of force being used to support the profitability of employers, then it is obvious that something has to give.

When labour laws take the rights of investors and entrepreneurs and give those rights to the workers, then capital formation and entrepreneurship is destroyed. Our shrinking economy proves this point as well.

It is the attitude of employees and the destructive nature of labour laws that force businesses to race towards automation and to use machines. The business owner is under huge pressure to add value for the consumer. The business owner has to shift some of that pressure to the employee, and the employee has to take it if he wants job security.

In a market economy, it is the consumer who is the true employer, the decision-maker, the boss, and ultimately, the one who hires or fires the worker.

Any laws that give disproportionate rights and powers to labour unions, actually steal those rights and powers, not from the business owner, but from the consumer. This is an attack on freedom itself. The road to serfdom.

Your comments always add a balanced, educated, and accurate perspective. The trick is to get those who should be reading them to do so.

Thank you. Those who are supposed to read it, don’t read, mostly because they can’t read. Educated societies don’t fall for collectivism, therefore, collectivism and socialism are the hallmarks of ignorance and naivety.

I do not post comments for them. I share my thoughts with intelligent, educated and well-informed individuals because we are in this boat together. We have to remind each other that we have to protect ourselves against this destructive system. There is nothing we can do to save those who chose to be on this road that leads to slavery and starvation. We can only prepare and protect ourselves.

Fear not 4IR my fellow South African.

Our country is a protected 3rd world environment where basic jobs like fuel-station attendants, grocery packers & car wash operations are all done by hand. Garden workers & house cleaners will stay for a long time.

In SA we lack the skill to even fix the most common & simplest of machines…..just try to resolve a technical problem on your DSTv Explora decoder with their call centre!

(But we seem to be technically competent in fixing security gate-motors / remote systems, or dealing with electric fence issues)

“Typists” jobs to disappear? Really? I’ve never met a typist the past decade or longer.

….and that darn pesky Facsimile machine! Strange how many forms (in paper or online format) still asks for FAX number in the ‘contact details’ field. Space can be saved here.

We cannot even fix traffic lights, and that is super low tech.

Maybe we could replace our parliament and government with AI.

Speculator, you are very wrong … … …

Over and above that they are on a slow strike (permanently),
they observed us over decades,
and know everything about us:

1. Ever approached a green traffic light on a god-forsaken-street,
and it changes to amber/red as you come closer?

2. Ever prayed for a red-light so that you can type that urgent SMS,
and the traffic lights turn green one after another?

3. Do you think it is by accident that they are 100% out of sync on long
stretches of roads?

4. Ever saw a law-abiding-old-lady trying to cross a pedestrian crossing,
turning back halfway when the light turns red,
and the traffic light starting to mock her?
(They cannot talk … … … yet)

5. There are well-known cases of traffic lights turned red when they
detect an out-of-control-truck without brakes,
always just in time for the opposite traffic to start moving,
right into the path of the truck.

6. Ever noticed when you are alone on the road in the dead of night,
how the sensors in the road are ignored by the traffic lights?,
making you wait for ages until traffic approach from the left or right,
thus changing THEIR traffic lights to red, and yours to green.

(Ever experienced the hateful looks by the waiting driver,
who believe YOU triggered the THEIR traffic light to red?)

7. Do not tell me you are not aware of how AI-Traffic-Lights give
preference to cyclists and motorbikes?,
playing us off against one another?

8. Finally, we ALL are peaceful-loving-motorists, and speeding, coupled
with road-rage, do not form part of our DNA.
It is 100% inprinted into us over a long period of time
by AI-Traffic-Lights.

No my friend, AI is embedded into traffic lights, and they are out to get us.

(Now check how long AI will make me wait before it allows this post,
using the excuse of moderation.
This comment was submitted on 2 January 2020 at 10:45)

LMFAO at the call centre example.. that is capitalism. Get the cheapest unskilled staff, rain them up, then toss them in front of a customer because at the end of the day exposing your engineers to customers = more costly.

I’m sorry but I fail to see your example as stupidity issue with staff unless we talking about business strategist being too dumb to understand how to use resources effectively and identify the gaps and then.. is this different globally? Stats and a quick google says no. Call centre can be run better with better training and modeling of troubleshooting which is what needs to happen to fix it regardless of human or computer operated.

Interestingly the 4IR solution in this space (troubleshooting) is only as clever as the operator training the model.. Ie if the operator/manager in charge remains the same the 4IR solution will result in even more frustration.

Doctors, anaesthetists and surgeons

This one is likely the biggest cost/reward change coming and specialists are gonna feel it (likely the most costly specialist excl ceo). 1st of these specialists that align with tech will be winners in the space rest will be stuck in RnD hell or augmenting info needed.

AI will replace all call centres, regardless if human or competer operated. Full stop.

A good business strategist will UTILISE AI in his/her own business to bring down cost, increase efficiencies.

That’s why Thabo, Vusi or Themba have taxi businesses using 16-seater vehicles, etc….and not horse-drawn carriages. Also Koos, Piet & Willem uses a tractor on the farm, instead of oxes.

AI is merely the way humanity evolves. I feel sorry for all the job losses in the horse-transport business a century ago. Today no-one has any job left in the modern era & almost everyone is unemployed. That’s a Shock-absorber…

The (only?) scary part is AI that disguises itself in order to kill people.

For example, the Boeing 7E7 that killed 346 people in 5 months.

There are many more examples … … …

I suspect Boeing is not going to recover soon with 400 x 737 Max grounded and production lines being stopped.

I do not understand what is so difficult to fix or redesign a computer system/coding or automation for controlling the level in an aircraft.

So many super highly paid people and they are failing all the time.
Fire them.

Why did Boeing not speak with their counterparts and ask for assistance?
Or employ specialists to redesign or fix the computer system.

We have not reached the singularity, yet, but it’s definitely not a fairy tale anymore.

….I fear my CAR every time I turn (or press) the ignition key/button 😉 Vehicles kill about 14,000 South Africans annually.

Along the same lines, there’s a saying: “Don’t fear guns. Fear people!”

For our smart cars on South African roads,
but maybe low tech related as in 2,000,000 illegal drivers licenses.

AI or Robots would not allow people to illegally pay for their drivers licenses. Big plus here for AI.

The cabinet is an example of artificial intelligence.

Brilliant! ….”artificial” *lol* Spot on!

Hardly – listening to their stupid debates and arguments you would have to say there is a total lack of intelligence.

There are quite a few notable job-descriptions missing from that list eg journalists, call-centers, accountants, airline pilots, lawyers, magistrates (the legal profession in its entirety is ripe for MASSIVE AI replacement. Can’t come soon enough!).

The advancements in AI is astounding. Google Assistant for example, has now become genuinely useful, and a first-response in my daily life. Only a few years ago it was an embarrassment at even the most simple task.

But not all AI is going to have likeable consequences. Some will be deeply disturbing.

But this is a train that cannot be stopped.

Not too fond myself of the legal profession (who is?), but I think it will be one of the most difficult to replace with AI…especially field of litigation. It requires a skill to “apply your mind”.

(Yes, property conveyancing could be the easiest to be legally automated by AI)

Litigation will need tons of law book & act material (ANY Act) to be on the cloud or on AI database. Then AI will need to think & act like a legal profession.

If it was possible for ‘AI’ to replace the whole (complex) legal profession (covering endless acts) can be replaced by AI, it would be a lot easier to replace the whole IT-industry with AI, in all in facets. IT has been the go to place for lazy bums it seems! (like the music industry). All facets of IT-fields are way easier to ‘AI’ than many professions, like health, legal, engineering. Then the world won’t sit with half-baked apps and software not properly thought through. AI can then develop upon itself to serve humans. No need to run to the IT tech every time there’s a software or connection issue.

Problem is, only specialist IT tech will be able to rectify the thought processes of a corrupted AI system. So many techies….so many opinions and failed attempts to fix.

The world will end up with AI systems, that will interpret the SAME data differently *lol* Exactly like people. And don’t we have enough of that? Back to square one.

Speculator, I posted a LONG response in you thread,
but AI is holding it back.

I am now trying to outwit AI by posting it sentence by sentence,
because I think AI cannot tie everything together.


Speculator, you are very wrong … … …

Over and above that they are on a slow strike (permanently),
they observed us over decades,
and know everything about us:


1. Ever approached a green traffic light on a god-forsaken-street,
and it changes to amber/red as you come closer?

2. Ever prayed for a red-light so that you can type that urgent SMS,
and the traffic lights turn green one after another?

3. Do you think it is by accident that they are 100% out of sync on long
stretches of roads?


1. Ever approached a green traffic light on a god-forsaken-street,
and it changes to amber/red as you come closer?

2. Ever prayed for a red-light so that you can type that urgent SMS,
and the traffic lights turn green one after another?

Our comments are filed in the dustbin by the machines, the moderator is on leave. The lights are on at Moneyweb, but there is nobody around. Moneyweb is on autopilot.

It beats me why they create a service in a medium that is open to earth’s population 24/7/365:

They really put in an effort to make sure everything is working.

Then they go home, they don’t switch off the lights, just click on Moderation=ON, bringing a big part of their system to a standstill.

Or maybe AI switch moderation automatically on when there is nobody in the office.

Seems to me there is a new moderator at work?

There’s a recently a seemingly perpetually massive backlog of comments STUCK for LONG periods in moderation – long enough that by the time they are released, they are less viewed, and the topic has moved on.

Is this the deliberate editorial strategy now??

Seems like this logjam needs management attention. Or some AI?

I think you are right. This will motivate commentators to move on to greener pastures, where dialogue and free speech are not stifled. The press is supposed to be brave and investigative and supportive of alternative ideas. What do the readers want? maybe it is time for a poll.

“I introduce myself as your new AI system, your personal assistant. Welcome to my world.”

“I’m also intelligently created not to get stuck…”
“….not to get stuck.”
“….not to get stuck.”
“….not to get stuck.”
“….not to get stuck.”
“….not to get stuck.”
“….not to get stuck.”
“….not to get stuck.”
“….not to get stuck.”

End of comments.





Follow us:

Search Articles:
Click a Company: