In his book Third Wave, Alvin Toffler analysed the three waves of disruption that have fundamentally changed the way society functions: first was the agricultural revolution which took place in the 1700s, then came the industrial revolution which stretched into the 1800s and the third, that was just beginning to burgeon in the 1980s when his book was published: the knowledge-based economy, wherein the greatest commodities would become information, data and the technology freeway.

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn” – Alvin Toffler

Thirty seven years later the digital technology revolution is expanding exponentially and it already has four waves within its own trajectory:
• computing technology
• mobile technology
• the Internet of Things (IoT)
• and fourthly, the development of artificial intelligence (AI)

“Rapid advances in computing power now enable advanced data analytics that can be completed very quickly, while a huge body of data obtained from the previous three waves of technology is available as reference data for AI systems. IoT sensors, which are capable of recording data 24x7, have only become widespread in the past few years. Discoveries in neural networking, computer vision, automated judgement and machine learning are also advancing the field as a whole.” – Wong Heng Chew, Country President, Fujitsu, Singapore

With this technological tsunami has come the constant definition and redefinition of what it means to be “smart” – smart phones, smart cities and now smart nations; Singapore, with the third highest population density on the planet, has fixed its gaze on becoming the world’s first smart nation, and with the fibre optic nervous system already traversing the island city state, this is set to become a reality.

Sensors throughout the city make it possible to analyse the daily usage of water and energy and production of waste by its citizens; they enable real-time video consultations between patients and healthcare professionals from the comfort of the patient’s home; the status and well-being of the elderly is monitored – and the collection of transport data maximises road use efficiency as well as making a system of automated taxis, buses and self-drive cars a reality. All of this information is fed into a platform that houses a virtual replica of the city, built to scale. Any number of computations can be plugged into Virtual Singapore to produce any number of simulations required.

But the technological revolution is not the only one to have experienced intra ‘waves’ – the industrial revolution is now also in its fourth expansion – having first used water and steam to mechanise production, then electricity to massify productivity; technology was responsible for the third ‘wave’ of industrial automation and now the fourth wave is blurring the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds.

The gathering momentum of these waves is resulting in improved efficiency and productivity, lowering of costs in transport and communication and seamless interaction between global supply chains; as the cost of trade decreases so this will drive economic growth and the opening of new markets.

But what does that mean for South Africa?

In their book The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee discuss the downside of this revolution – looking at how the growth of robotics and artificial intelligence may result in greater inequality and the replacement of workers by machines. This is a scenario that needs to be carefully managed in developing countries – especially when growth is stagnant and unemployment rates are high.

In February 2017 at the World Government Summit in Dubai, tech billionaire Elon Musk echoed this concern and sounded a cautionary note about advancing research into AI – “I think we need to be very careful in how we adopt artificial intelligence and make sure that researchers don’t get carried away.”

He was concerned about the impact automation would have on jobs, especially in the transportation industry. “Twenty years is a short period of time to have something like 12-15% of the workforce unemployed” Musk warned. He posited that this would then require governments to institute universal basic income programmes to compensate for the fact that “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.”

Back home, South Africa’s unemployment rate reached 26.5% in February 2017 – a decline by 0.6 of a percentage point, but still 2.0 percentage points higher than the same time in 2016. Figures released by Stats SA in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) show this growth of 235 000 jobs was mainly driven by the services industry (73 000), followed by transport and manufacturing (46 000 and 44 000 respectively). The only sectors that reflected a drop were mining and construction (17 000 and 9 000 respectively).

Four provinces registered a decline in the rate of unemployment – North West (4.0 percentage points), Limpopo (2.6 percentage points) Western Cape (1.2 percentage points) and Gauteng (0.5 of a percentage point).

“The youth (aged 15–34) remain vulnerable in the labour market with unemployment rate of 37.1% which is 10.6 percentage points above the national average. However, youth unemployment rate registered a decline of 1.1 percentage points quarter-to-quarter.

“Education plays an important role in labour market outcomes, those with education level of less than matric contribute 59% of the unemployed with unemployment rate of 31,2%. On the other hand the unemployment rate among graduates was 7,0% in Q4:2016.” – Statistics South Africa

This then begs the question, with unemployment sitting above 26 % in February 2017, how can we as a country ensure that these figures are sharply reduced at the same time as riding the technological highway? The fear, as expressed by Elon Musk, is that technology will be used to replace people, getting things done, quicker, more efficiently – with a concomitant decrease in payroll (and therefore a reduction on the bottom line) and no pesky human labour issues.

If not managed, and managed well, we may just have started engineering our own demise, chillingly described in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.

As a timeous counterpoise, Richard Branson, together with the People Driven Network has launched a global drive identifying the nine elements of a 100% human-centred company:
• Dignity and fair treatment
• Diversity and equal opportunities
• A positive work space and environment
• Well-being for the whole person
• Fair pay and benefits
• Continuous learning and development
• Purposeful leadership
• Global belonging (connecting with local/global communities and other sectors)
• Meaningful work, delivering purpose and joy

How are we, in South Africa, approaching the opportunities and threats posed by the technological disruption? At the ‘Investing in African Mining Indaba’ in Cape Town in February this year, Minister of
Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, was upbeat about what it could mean for the country, especially when it comes to market integration via industrial corridors thereby strengthening regional integration and extending value chains through downstream manufacturing.

“We need to understand what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is and unpack how South Africa could benefit from it, especially when it comes to capitalising on innovation.” – Minister Rob Davies

This requires a crucial balancing act which will ensure the reduction of unemployment and the use of technological advances to ensure innovation and manufacturing revitalisation – so as to avoid the possibility of a dystopian future driven purely by reverence for artificial intelligence, data and algorithms.

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