As the digital age transforms the way in which people live, it will also have an impact on the economy and on jobs. New trades with new skills will be created and some jobs that are currently being done by humans will be replaced by automated systems.
All except those that still require a human touch and complex problem solving abilities will survive.
This is according to Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, who was one of the keynote speakers at the 2018 Science Forum South Africa, which took place in Pretoria last week.
In his address he contemplated what some of the critical skills that are needed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution are.
“I am going to talk about something called the Moravec’s dilemma. Moravec basically believed that [the] skills that human beings acquired a long time ago are much more difficult to automate than skills that were acquired more recently.
“At OR Tambo, not too long ago, they used have a machine to give people massages. You would sit on the chair and there would be things that would be moving for you to get a massage. Those chairs are no longer there and the reason for that is that human beings do those things much better than a machine.
“So jobs that have what is called the human touch are jobs that are going to survive the fourth industrial revolution,” he said.
The Moravec paradox is a principle that was articulated by futurist Hans Moravec and other artificial intelligence and robotics researchers in the 1980s.
It states that contrary to other assertions, it is easy to give robots or computers adult level performance on intelligence tests while at the same time it is a bit more difficult to give them skills like sensibility or mobility.
Marwala’s research in artificial intelligence
Having been in his current position since January, previously Marwala was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation between 2013 and 2017.
He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (magna cum laude) from Case Western Reserve University (USA), a Master of Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pretoria and a PhD specialising in Artificial Intelligence and Engineering from the University of Cambridge.
He was a post-doctoral research associate at the Imperial College (then University of London).
His research interests are multi-disciplinary and include the theory and application of artificial intelligence to engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine.
He has published 12 books on artificial intelligence – one of which has been translated into Chinese; over 300 papers in journals, proceedings, book chapters and magazines and holds four international patents.
Automated work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Marwala took some time to explain the journey the world has travelled from the first to the fourth revolutions.
While the fourth marks the advent of the digital era, the First Industrial Revolution was dominated by steam mechanisation where hand production methods were replaced by iron production and chemical manufacturing, which gave rise to the factory system. This took place in the 18th century.
The Second Industrial Revolution, between 1870 and 1940, was an era when electricity was introduced and the petroleum and steel industries were expanded.
The Third Industrial Revolution, which Marwala described as an era of knowledge distribution, was about computerisation and the birth of the internet. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about cyber-physical systemisation, artificial cognisation and robotisation.
Marwala believes the world is now entering an era where a great deal of work is going to be done by machines.
Professional class must re-skill themselves
Sharing his own research into artificial intelligence and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, he said artificial intelligence has impacted several professions from healthcare and the economy to political science and psychology.
Marwala used the example of the introduction of artificial intelligence into stock trading, where human traders were replaced by artificially intelligent traders. Factors such as emotion were removed from the markets and decisions are made purely based on data.
“Before, when the stock market was still down in Johannesburg and everybody was shouting prices, there were two criteria you needed in order to work in the stock market as a trader. One, you must have been tall because if you are not tall enough, when you call the price, they won’t see you.
The second one was that you needed to have an imposing voice. If you had a soft voice you wouldn’t survive there.
“But now the stock market is no longer manned by human beings. People are now using computers to trade in the stock market,” he said.
Because of this, he said, markets have become more rational and “rational markets are more efficient”.
Marwala also used the example of the automation of operations at the then SA Breweries as an indication that the current digital era is already impacting on working class jobs.
The liquor brewer used to have a plant in East London which employed 3 000 people but after it was automated some jobs became redundant.
He said the world was entering what is called a “post-work” era and while conventional wisdom predicts that the working class will be the biggest losers, there is a need for the professional class to re-skill themselves.
“But if you see the scale at which many white collar jobs are being automated, I think the professional class must actually re-skill themselves. They must prepare themselves much more than they are doing now,” he said.
For instance, professionals in the banking sector, who initially were only required to have accounting skills, must expand their skills set.
“The conclusion … is that bankers of the future must have some form of understanding for technology, some form of understanding of society and some form of understanding for finance and accounting,” he said.
Skills that will survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Marwala said skills that can survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be acquired through multi-disciplinary education where human and social sciences understand science and technology, and vice versa.
The skills that will be required for the digital revolution age are, among other cognitive abilities, systems skills; complex problem solving skills; content skills; process skills; social skills; resource management skills; technical skills and physical skills.
This article was first published in BusinessTech on 18 December 2018.