It’s the end of the world as we know it

Posted on October 02, 2018

You can run but can’t hide from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), says the University of Pretoria’s Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, Prof Sunil Maharaj, in an interview with Primarashni Gower.

PG: Should we be nervous about the 4IR?

SM: Yes and no. Yes, because we need to be more vigorous about providing the right technical education and training, ranging from artisan through to engineer level, or we could very easily plunge deeper into the digital divide, poverty and inequality. No, because I see this as an opportunity through focused and decisive leadership for South Africa to “leapfrog” our digital transformation agenda and improve our heath, food security and economic growth.

PG: How is the 4IR different from previous revolutions?

SM: The 4IR is a game-changer for the future as it is marked by breakthroughs in fields including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, internet of things (IoT), quantum computing and biotechnology, to address future challenges such as food security, health, education, water and energy. The other revolutions focused on steam power, which led to industrialisation; while the age of science led to urbanisation and powered mass production in factories. The digital revolution led to automated production, a switch from analogue to digital technologies.

PG: Do you have empirical evidence that several jobs will be lost in South Africa?

SM: No study that I am aware of has been exhaustively conducted in South Africa. However, based on 2018 reports from Canada, more than 25% of Canadian jobs will be disrupted by technology in the coming decade, while 50% of occupations will undergo a major skills overhaul. Lakefield University’s report on Empowering Canadian Youth for the jobs of tomorrow indicates that 2,4 million jobs are expected to open up in the next few years and they require a new mix of skills which include critical thinking, social perceptiveness and complex problem-solving. People will reskill and change jobs several times, while digital fluency will be necessary.  Traditional jobs (machinists, sheet metal workers, electricians and carpenters) could shift to 21st century jobs (drone assemblers and robotics engineer technicians.

In South African there is  potential for job losses, but people will need to reskill for different types of work. It is  important that we train now for jobs that could exist in 10 years. There will be new jobs in augmented reality, coding, big/massive data scientists, surgeons that have an engineering background, unmanned flight controllers, robotic deep mining, traffic controllers and engineers. The traditional role of many jobs would be radically disrupted, and jobs such as a receptionist, cleaner, farmer, the traditional accountant or auditor would in my view be redundant.

A traditionally trained mining engineer and doctor will need  different skills sets, which includes artificial intelligence. Companies need to help employees with continuous professional development, and universities could be involved in re-training. It is essential that industries, government and people embark on lifelong learning, reskilling all the time.

PG: Author Elbert Hubbard said “one machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” Can artificial intelligence replace workers entirely? 

SM: The human touch will still be needed for leadership, and debate, conflict resolution and ethical and moral considerations for decision-making. Skills of writing, speaking and making videos are important but the fundamental skills of critical thinking, problem-solving, effective communication, community building and teamwork will be powerful. Despite great advances in technology, today’s most powerful 20 megawatt computer cannot come close to matching the human brain.

PG: Is South Africa doing enough to plan for the fourth industrial revolution?

SM: The Department of Science and Technology is tackling issues around the fourth industrial revolution. However, South Africa needs to invest more into research, particularly in the discipline of engineering. There needs to be investment in areas such as smart transportation, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and machine learning. We need to create a partnership between government, industry and academia. To be globally competitive, we need to develop high level technical skills and perhaps even overhaul our size, shape and priorities within the education landscape.

PG: Are schools preparing learners for IR4?

SM: The school system in general is failing society in terms of producing the right types of skills. There is a high failure rate among first-year engineering students, country wide, as they lack sufficient problem solving, communication and mathematical skills. There are relatively few schools in South Africa that do exceptionally well. This is evidenced by the quality of mathematics and science Grade 12 results, over the years.  

PG: How different could South Africa look, 30 years down the line?

SM: South Africa has some of the deepest mines in the world and safety is a major issue. We can minimise the safety risk by having remote controlled mining and inspections by robots, which will save lives and also make some these mines profitable. Using robots will be cost effective. Mine workers would have to be re-skilled to do other jobs such as mine robotic controllers and supervisors, IoT safety officers and planners.

In Germany, which has a strong manufacturing economy, smart manufacturing by remote control occurs and as well as additive manufacturing using 3D printing technology. You can operate a factory through hologram technology. There is much research progressing in haptic technology, where robots and devices would just not be things or devices but have some level sensation of feeling or touch.

We will have driverless cars that need to speak to each other. They would also need to sense a congested route and speak to bridges. Cars need artificial intelligence to do this, while your smartphone could diagnose medical problems.

Our homes will be automated. You could talk to your robotic house keeper to start the cooking or maybe monitor the kids doing their homework!

PG: How can artificial intelligence help bring about social justice in South Africa?

SM: We can use AI to bring about equanimity between rural and urban areas. We can build sustainable services in rural areas, but it requires vision and investment. In rural areas there is a scarcity of good maths and science teachers but a teacher in for example, Johannesburg could hologram himself/herself using future telecommunications technology, such as fifth generation technology termed 5G into a classroom in real time and learners could interact with it.

A highly specialised physician for example in the United States could hologram herself into a rural hospital in Ulundi and instruct a robot to perform complicated, life-saving surgery on a patient in the not too distant future. South Africa needs a paradigm shift in its planning and implementation and this is what is meant by digital transformation.

PG: What about the ethics and pitfalls of artificial intelligence?

SM: There could be an invasion of privacy in our homes with cameras and sensors in our kitchens and other spaces. Our rights as individuals could be compromised. If a driverless car crashes into another driverless car, who pays for the damage? We would need to relook at insurance policies and the profession of law. These are exciting new areas for further research, transdisciplinary work and new policies, new policies, where South Africa can become innovators and leaders both locally and globally.

What is the University of Pretoria doing to prepare its graduates for the 4IR?

SM: At the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, we educate our graduates with the fundamental and foundational skills in mathematics, stochastics, programming, electronics, problem solving, critical thinking and design, which can be applied in a new work environment. We include aspects pertaining to professional practice, communication skills, ethics, human values and environmental and social responsibility  into our curriculum.

We recently launched TuksNovation, a non-profit company owned by UP which is a high-tech business incubator, in collaboration with the Departments of Small Business Development, Trade and Industry and the Small Enterprise Development Agency. The aim is to promote hi-tech job creation among students by providing support for the incubation, development and opportunities for commercialisation of technology with industry partners, venture capitalists and other funding agencies. 

We also have the Multichoice-funded Chair in Machine Learning, which will help grow the country’s  pool of talent in AI, Machine Learning and cybersecurity for the digital future. These initiatives will position our graduates to be 4IR- ready and to become global thought leaders.

An edited version of this conversation was published in The Witness on 27 September.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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