Universities to prepare for 4IR

Prof Saurabh Sinha is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He recently penned an opinion piece published in the Sunday Independent on 21 July 2019.

I recently walked into a heated conversation among a group of young people in the foyer of an auditorium at the University of johannesburg (UJ) Kingsway campus.

Amid the raucous debate names such as MultiChoice Standard Bank Gold Fields and Business Connections were being mentioned frequently so much so that it did not take me long to realise that the talk was about the fourth industrial revolution 4IR and the job bloodbaths across sectors.

These companies are using this thing of the fourth industrial revolution as an excuse to maximise profits at the expense of the working class rang a voice. Some of the branches they shut down were busier and these banks are merely deceiving us. They are just too hasty to retrench and are hiding their real motive behind 4IR.

This sentiment a reference to Standard Bank s decision to lay off 1 500 workers sparked clapping and cheering. As the debate grew fiercer it oscillated between hysterical and logical reasoning testing the students emotional intelligence. Phrases such as white monopoly capital radical economic transformation and imperialist forces were thrown around randomly from one side while the other countered this narrative.

One teenager said matter of factly, ‘Guys it would be futile to moan about the inevitable we should be seeking solutions. What we should be talking about is how relevant curricula in the schools and universities are and if they are aligned to this thing 4IR and the jobs of tomorrow. ‘

It was at that point that I was left to ponder if universities let alone UJ for all its acclaimed stature as a leading 4IR institution of higher learning in the country were doing enough to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow and the concomitant technological advancements. While UJ Principal and Vice Chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala has been an excellent 4IR ambassador for the university and South Africa traversing the country highlighting the significance of this phenomenon and the need to adapt to it, the real benefit will only be seen when academia private and public sectors take practical steps to prepare and support their communities for the technological advances resulting from 4IR.

It is good to make presentations of 4IR and it is also important to complement the buzz with tangible action that benefit students workers and the general populace. Artificial intelligence AI enters our lives seamlessly data is gathered and machine learning enhances. For example on Saturday July 6 Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town UCT challenged us through Twitter to deliver a solution for translation of African languages. The lack here may not only be the tools but the lack of African language data for example as we do not use Sotho or another African language in our e mail communication the deep learning algorithms used by Gmail has not received sufficient feed for African languages; with the feed or input the algorithm for translation technology will self learn and constantly improve.

Anyway as I translated the text to test Google translate the current translation already enables comprehension. Universities like UJ envision to dynamically shape the future and 4IR provides a perfect segue for this to the available cloud computing and big data explosion.

Aside from thought leadership UJ s approach to the 4IR is also guided by a formalised catalytic or strategic initiative catalyst that allows the institution to produce students who are able to think differently and distinguish themselves in this way. In particular the institution has striven for learning that encompasses a blend of teaching research and innovation in an era where even the fundamentals are shifting.

Through a process lasting nearly one year UJ decided to contextualise its 2025 strategy for global excellence and stature for 4IR. The strategic or catalytic initiative has wide implications for the university s business and in particular for the research innovation nexus. The quest is to graduate students who are able to access and define new economic zones. In addition to the physical or urban economy endeavour South Africa through Operation Phakisa hurry up has added the oceans economy; the digital economy has also been defined.

While the digital economy brings about an opportunity for creating jobs in a virtual environment and to combat poverty in a new way it has however been around for some time. One could visualise the oceans and digital/ data economy in an analogous way. As in the ocean there is much water but we are unable to access most of the water for say drinking.

The digital economy similarly has much data but we have not been able to access most of this data meaningfully as computing and communication technologies have yet to converge in a sophisticated way. Sophistication refers to the inclusion of advanced AI systems utilising machine and in particular deep learning. The latter includes data fusion from various man machine sources and this will have privacy security and other secondary implications advanced systems such as traffic networks may face the complication of a hijack and individual data breaches could routinely occur.

Using technologies such as AI in a multipronged way refers to 4IR and would allow for accessing and utilising data beyond the offerings of the traditional digital economy the third industrial revolution . In the analogy of the oceans it would be like accessing water data or aspects of the ocean digital economy that are yet to be harvested in a sustainable way. However the digital economy has the potential for deepening inequality unless the aspect of digital equity and equality is included as an initial specification to the 4IR education and economic scenario.

In the education scenario inclusiveness must be an endeavour in project and programme initiatives. Fortunately the generation of millennials and beyond is a majority in Africa and their energy combined with 4IR could bring about a new kind of global renewal to achieve equality. In the economic scenario the government must play a role in redefining taxation and through economic stimulus for instance by incentivising 4IR as an economic stimulus with productivity gains being taxed in a gradual way. As initiatives progress in parallel education economic thinking for inclusiveness would need to be central to the graduate s paradigm of thinking. Graduates have to be trained with a new level of digital astuteness accessing multiple thought domains and in such a way that their mindset can aspire beyond the ordinary; 4IR provides a perfect platform for this.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

Prof Saurabh Sinha
Prof Saurabh Sinha
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