The impact of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) will be so severe that much of the work that is done by human beings is going to be automated, placing most jobs at risk. Moreover, unless people begin to understand the impact of 4IR, and how to mitigate this phenomenon, human beings are going to be rendered irrelevant.
This was the view of Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) when he addressed representatives from various industries and government at the fourth industrial revolution workshop at Deloitte offices in Woodmead, Johannesburg, on Thursday, 24 January 2019.
The workshop, whose focus was on the ICT sector, was the second in a series of dialogues that form part of a collaboration between UJ, Wits University, Forth Hare University and Telkom. The partnership, aptly called 4IRSA, brings key industry role players and the government together for a common dialogue to develop coherent, fact-based and rational responses to the fourth industrial revolution. The workshops will culminate in a summit of principles, to be held in March or April.
“Now we are living in the fourth industrial revolution, which is going to automate much of the work that is done by human beings. Not all (jobs), but much of the work that is done by human beings is going to be automated,” said Prof Marwala, as he explained the impact of 4IR.
“That is why in our partnership on 4IRSA between UJ, Wits, Fort Hare and Telkom, the centrality of labour is very important, so that we are able to understand what is this thing going to do to the world of work. In fact, this fourth industrial revolution is going to make human beings irrelevant. Now, how are we going to fight human irrelevance?” asked Prof Marwala, himself a leading 4IR expert in South Africa and on the continent.
“In this world of work, what jobs are going to be eliminated, and what jobs are going to remain? There is this misperception that both levels of jobs are going to be eliminated. White-collar jobs are the jobs that are going to be at most risk rather than blue collar jobs. The person who is tending to your garden is not at risk but rater it is the person who is doing your credit scoring at the bank,” explained Prof Marwala.
He said the 4IRSA partnership between the four institutions was an important initiative so that South Africans become participants in the fourth industrial revolution, and not spectators – as they have been in the preceding revolutions.
“When the first industrial happened, we were actually not participating. For example, the steam engine only appeared in South Africa 60 years afterwards. In the second industrial revolution, electrons became important. Again, we were not participants. (Then came) the third industrial revolution, and we never participated. Up to today, we do not have a single semi -conductor company in the continent of Africa.
“So again, we were not participants but we were people just consuming these goods. In fact, because of this, the electronic industry had not taken off in Africa. We do not necessary make our own televisions; we do not necessary make our own smart phones. We import these goods because that industry never developed in Africa.”
Mr Sipho Maseko, Group CEO of Telkom SA gave a background of the 4IRSA partnership between the four institutions, and emphasised that the impact of the fourth industrial revolution was such serious that it requires ways how policy should be set. He said universities will have to play a critical role in helping developing strategies to respond to the challenges of 4IR.
“There is a need for multi-sectoral, multidisciplinary dialogue and our role is simple; ‘ignite the fire and pass the ball to Prof Marwala, Prof Habib and Fort Hare to lead an inclusive dialogue. It is important that the topic around the digital economic is a sectoral problem, not just government,” he said.
Mr Maseko also reaffirmed Telkom’s commitment to the partnership and for practical steps to be taken in efforts to respond to the disruptions brought about by 4IR.
Ms Thulisile Manzini, acting DG in the Department of Communications said 4IR requires South Africans to rethink the way they do things in order to maximise the value of this concept. “South Africa currently has the different elements of the 4IR spread across government departments, state entities and the private sector but there is currently no single plan or blueprint which brings together all key role players including civil society into a single focus. This calls for a complete rethink on the way we do things in order to maximise the value of the opportunities that come with the fourth industrial revolution,” she said.
Ms Manzini said aligning government with 21st century technological, economic and social realities will require innovations at least as disruptive and profound as those embraced by the private sector. She said despite the challenges of 4IR, she was confident that South Africa has the capacity to respond positively to the concept.
“Digitalisation and internet connectivity have the ability to drive South Africa forward. This would enable innovation, propel new business models and improve the delivery of public services,” she said.
Prof Adam Habib, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, said it was important for South Africans to analyse 4IR as it happens, as that would give then the opportunity to mould it they way they like. He said it was disconcerting that some South Africans have a negative view of 4IR.
“I am worried that some of our colleagues are approaching it the wrong way; that it will make us lose our jobs and that we must stop it. Let us mould it to prevent it from being an elite agenda rather than inclusive,” he said.
“The skills associated with 4IR are fundamentally what the future of jobs is going to be. 4IR is going to be the core. The end game is that everyone in this country must be able to have the skills, only through that will society get innovative.”
Prof Habib explained that it was important to have both regulation and competition, “otherwise we are in trouble.”
He said it was in the interest of the public to form collaborations, which will enable skills development. “At the moment we have big institutional boundaries. The private sector must work in close collaboration with government to bring technology and make it adapt for (local) context. In Europe and elsewhere, they are way ahead of us, and unless we start collaborating and creating a mindset that works, (we will never get this right).
Among other speakers was Kim Schulze, Digital Advisory Service Head – Microsoft South Africa.
Earlier, Brian Armstrong, Wits University Research Chair in Digital Business gave an overview of the 4IRSA partnership. He said it was important, because of the several unconnected and divergent conversations around the fourth industrial revolution, to have an inclusive fact-based dialogue to help shape a coherent national response to the concept.