Dining with technology is better than being dined on by it, writes Prof Saurabh Sinha

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Prof Saurabh Sinha recently penned an opinion piece, The Fourth is with you! Technology on our tables, published by the Sunday Independent, 17 June 2018.

The Fourth is with you! Technology on our tables

Last weekend, while having a birthday dinner for a dear friend and colleague, technology was on the celebration table. Of course, by this I mean cellphones were on the table. Fortunately, on this occasion, we were talking to one another. The anxiety of when that blue light would flash again remained perceptible. In case you had drinking and policing thoughts – just to be clear, the blue light signifies another email or cellphone message. One colleague mentioned how quick some of my responses to the emails and messages occurred. This, indeed, is the case. I mentioned that some are auto-generated responses and thus quick to send! The table laughed at this possibility. I was quite serious, actually.

Artificial Intelligence has moved into our lives. At times, we’re not completely aware of this. The recent edition of mobile and desktop Gmail takes an email, processes the email, and generates a short response based on certain principles, including your behaviour and approach. Furthermore, if you send an email to respond by a certain date, and the responder has yet to do so, the message re-appears in your inbox, just so that you can “nudge” for a response. Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, has recently introduced how Google Assistant will further evolve.

By the way, the Google Assistant is likely to be on your Android Phone already, try and activate your phone by saying “Ok Google.” Sundar has demonstrated, at a recent talk, the ability for the Google Assistant, powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, to call phones for common tasks – for instance, to make appointments for a haircut or a restaurant reservation. Intentionally, the call demonstrations have included the Google Assistant’s emotions such as “Mm-hmm,” and also speaks to a person with a foreign accent. I was quite impressed and concerned. I have friends who work in call centres.

I was then reminded by a recent article by a colleague of mine, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, who recently described that the Xhosa clicks are not quite processed by these devices. I do, however, think that despite the protection offered by these “coded” clicks and local accents, for the local accents, the databases will grow and will replace a large portion of traditional call centres. On the other side of the phone, it would replace personal assistants.

So, it seems this way: if you’re in a profession where you do a task that is repetitive, you’ve to immediately upskill. Back to the dinner table, we continued our upskilling discussion. One of our colleagues murmured that technologies aren’t always helpful. To be more loving to his partner, he had set up the app “IFTTT” to automatically send a message when he was leaving work. In this instance, he was going elsewhere and forgot about IFTTT! A few minutes later, he got the call from his worried partner imagining the wild possibilities that could happen on the streets of Johannesburg or in Johannesburg.

I thought I’ll say something about IFTTT. IFTTT stands for “If This Then That” and it’s a free mobile app that can be configured to automate certain parts of your life. When you leave your work or home, you can programme the geographical area designating your work or home location, and the tool would appropriately text to inform others. It’s a great feature, after all, a number of cellphone packages offer several hundred “free” SMSes that one does not always use.

You can also do a number of other things with IFTTT, for example, sending love quotations and yes, happy anniversary and even birthday messages. Once again, automation comes about, with the carrot of convenience, the current and future blends in a seamless way, and you’re using IFTTT without thinking too much about it. As you were reading this article, if you were setting up IFTTT, and as you did so – you became part of the upskilling journey!

In recent times, if you’re calling Uber, you’ve now the convenience to offer the driver the possibility of your ‘exact location’ and you can move around a little. Similarly you can share your real-time location over WhatsApp. You’re enjoying the convenience. At the same time, you are offering your individual data, the database builds, and the next time you’ll see a message “most passengers wait here.” Not so great for a terrorist who would know exactly where to go! Uber Eats, another mobile app, gives you a set of options to order food, perhaps Pizza, from a store near you. You can then rate your experience, your food choice, and perhaps in future, you’ll get a reminder – “have you ordered the pizza that you’ve always loved?” Great for convenience, but weight (pun intended)!

Industry 3.0 has been achieved mainly through empowering of corporations, automating production, and beyond the digital revolution, Industry 4.0 or “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” will achieve through also empowering individuals as complex tasks would face automation, the cyber-physical division would blur, and artificial intelligence would power the approach.

The artificial intelligence component would happen in stages. For example, in the initial stage, you and others would programme a tool, such as IFTTT or Uber, for different individual actions. Behind the scene, the tool will build upon the database and based on what groups like to do, the tool would offer the conveniences. Individuals would feed into these conveniences and over time, the tool and offerings would improve.

Yes, you may be getting a little freaked out by this. To manage this, and to ensure that your data is not being used without permission, the European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s likely that legislators around the world will consider similar legislation to give individuals the right to opt-in. This does bring about a series of new complexities for the database ‘builders’ and machines – does this mean that the building or approach will continue where such legislation will be slower to adopt or adapt? What is the implication of this for us in Africa?

Clearly, there are opportunities with and within the Fourth Industrial Revolution and without doubt, the individual must start to immerse into aspects of the technologies, but must also be aware of the legal, economical, ethical, security and privacy implications.

At my university, I’m often asked by students and even staff, whether, in the longer term, upskilling would be the employment saviour? Given the economic inequality in South Africa, I have a view that we would need a multipronged approach. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will revive productivity. There are also thoughts for an automation tax. I’ve to still develop a viewpoint on the tax. My initial and rather simplified view, given our inequality, we do need a harmonising automation tax. We should however be upfront that the gains redeploy meaningfully into research, innovation and development – in education, water, energy, health, sanitation, and other areas that matters most for us and towards equality.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, from Star Wars, once ended off by saying “May the Force be With You” – signifying good luck. May the Fourth be with you!

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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