COMMENT: Art, humanities and the fourth industrial revolution: The robot apocalypse is not yet upon us

Posted on March 09, 2020

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is more than a buzzword. It is the rapid rate at which the world is evolving towards an interconnected, automated system of being. As a society, our dependency on technology has reached unprecedented levels – whether it’s the need to post a selfie online or working remotely through a cloud server, we are rapidly integrating technology into every aspect of our lives.

Our devices are smart and our gadgets and appliances are interconnected, adding to the ‘Internet of Things’ which gives us the ability to make informed decisions from the data sets created by our devices constantly sharing information about our habits and activities.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are set to make many jobs obsolete in the future as automation continues to increase. Some companies might happily accept this development, along with the potential for decreasing the size of their workforce and labour cost. But therein lies the catch.

4IR is creating overarching conditions that have important implications for our communities and society: what we teach, what we research, and our contribution to the economy, employment and society. This requires a deliberate leveraging and repositioning of our universities in order to optimise our role in reconstructing South Africa’s future.

In order for the 4IR to succeed, we need people – and we need the arts and humanities. While accounting may be entirely replaced by an automated spreadsheet, it is human beings with human qualities who will be needed to verify and understand nuances. 3D printers could be programmed to print bricks, or a computer could work out how to engineer a bridge. But will the bricks or bridge be aesthetically pleasing if their design is left to a computer or AI?

At the University of Pretoria (UP) we see the 4IR as the greatest opportunity to reimagine and positively transform higher education. This is already being achieved through the growth of transdisciplinary research, knowledge exchange, and international partnerships that address the world’s scientific, survival and societal challenges.

Rock art shows us that from time immemorial human beings have had a desire to beautify, preserve, and celebrate their culture. It is innate to us, and it is what makes us essentially human. As society hurtles forward in terms of technology, the work and the world of the arts and humanities can never be underestimated.

Humans are at the centre of everything we do, from user-centred design interfaces to having the ethical oversight necessary to verify data. The rise of online platforms has created a boom in digital entertainment and storytelling, which are key to the human experience. AI is not writing the scripts to our favourite television shows, people are. We’re just watching them on new platforms.

Computers and AI are not yet and might never be able to create – this is what sets human beings apart. The arts and humanities teach people how to think in terms of the big picture while not losing the minutiae. These are valuable skills because they allow us to understand and absorb large sets of data. This, combined with the ability to be creative and think out of the box, means that as the 4IR unfolds it may be students from the humanities and arts who will outperform others in the workplace.

The guiding forces behind the humanities – rational thinking, ethical living, compassion, storytelling, communication, empathy, creativity and the human spirit’s quest for justice and fairness – will be unlikely to be replicated by AI. While the integration of technology into our daily lives continues to expand, humanity will still be the masters of technology. The robot apocalypse is not yet upon us.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria. He is a professor of Media Studies and Literature.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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