The continent enters the Robot Age

The future’s now: The shop floor robot has arms that are changed for different functions. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The future’s now: The shop floor robot has arms that are changed for different functions. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Science fiction writers predicted robots. They didn’t predict that they would look so boring. At the Africa Automation Fair in Johannesburg this week, there were no cyborgs on display, or R2D2-lookalikes scuttling between the stands.
Instead, some of the most powerful machines were little more than black boxes with small screens and glowing lights, connected to a thicket of wires.

“Now you can control your factory from your phone. You don’t even need to be there,” said Unitronics salesman Dewald Potgieter.

He sells those black boxes, which are better known as Programmable Logic Controllers. These are the electronic brains that can control dozens, if not hundreds, of industrial machines at a time. He says his company can barely keep up with demand. “It’s like a snowball.”

There are 117 exhibitors at the expo, which is held every two years. It gets bigger every time. Africa may have been a little slow to enter the Robot Age, but there’s no denying that it’s here now.

From a layman’s perspective, the most exciting exhibit is what’s called a “collaborative robot”. It looks like someone wrenched the arm off an android — and it behaves in much the same way, complete with elbow-like joints and rubber “grippers” for fingers. This is a machine designed for the production line. It takes up about the same amount of space as a human would, but doesn’t take weekends or smoke breaks. It’s also faster and more reliable at completing repetitive manual tasks.

“It’s for the dumb and dangerous work, the repetitive work where having a human operator adds no value to the process,” said Gideon Smith, a representative of manufacturer Universal Robots.

One of their mid-range models goes for R365 000. The company already has 15 clients in South Africa, including big automotive and electronics firms, and predicts exponential annual growth. It also plans to expand into Southern Africa.

Cumii, a division of mobile giant Econet, is already in the region. It offers custom kits to turn normal homes into smart homes, wirelessly connecting everything from security cameras to washing machines so that the whole house can be controlled from a mobile phone app. Cumii is proving popular in Zimbabwe, where it boasts hundreds of clients. The product is doing well in Tanzania, and the company is now targeting South Africa and Kenya.

The potential effect on human jobs is not lost on the humans selling these machines. In fact, that’s often the sales pitch: the machines, although expensive, will provide cheaper and better labour in the long term.

“You don’t have someone coming in with a hangover the next morning, or someone falling asleep because it’s such mind-numbing work. This gives a much more reliable output, and is so much faster,” explained one vendor.

But what does this mean for humans themselves? It’s a question that keeps the smartest people alive awake at night — if not the salesmen on the floor of the expo centre.

“What to do about mass unemployment?” asked tech billionaire Elon Musk at a conference earlier this year. “This is going to be a massive social challenge. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. These are not things that I wish will happen. These are simply things that I think probably will happen.”

If the Africa Automation Fair is anything to go by, these things are happening sooner rather than later. Africa is especially vulnerable. About 67% of South Africa’s jobs are highly susceptible to automation, according to a recent Oxford University study. That figure is 65% for Nigeria, and 85% for Ethiopia.

Developing-world countries are generally at much higher risk of losing jobs because most employment falls into the “unskilled” category — the repetitive work that machines do so much better than humans.

To prevent rising unemployment and inequality, something’s got to change.

“Developing countries will need to search for new growth models,” concluded the Oxford report.

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