Implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Increased investment in R&D can accelerate SA and the continent’s industrialisation through digitisation

Increased investment in R&D can accelerate SA and the continent’s industrialisation through digitisation

The First Industrial Revolution happened as a result of mechanisation and humans harvesting the power of water and steam. The Second Industrial Revolution was characterised by electricity, mass production and assembly lines. The Third Industrial Revolution came about as a result of computers and the desire to automate different processes.

Each of these revolutions brought about unprecedented, paradoxical changes in the way people lived. Many jobs became extinct, yet the quality of life for most improved dramatically. Several new industries were created, but governments usually failed to regulate these in an effective way, and some caused extensive socioeconomic damage.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. It is characterised by a combination of cyber-physical systems. This is what people are calling the Internet of Things: a network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances, and other electronics with software and sensors connected to each other, all exchanging data.

Many analysts foresee the major breakthroughs of this revolution being made in the fields of autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, quantum computing, 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

At this year’s Science Forum South Africa (SFSA), there was a panel discussion titled Transformative Innovation Policy and the 4th Industrial Revolution. One of the panelists was Dr Hester du Plessis of the Human Sciences Research Council.

“Social innovation is an important part of technological innovation,” Du Plessis said. She added that technological innovators never really consult society to figure out what its needs are. Instead, they assume that the needs of the society will follow the technology.

Du Plessis studies the users of technology to see what patterns emerge from the use of new technology. As such, she has compiled a list of six “symptoms” she claims always arise as a result of using new technology.

“The first one is, we’ve started to identify new classes in the population,” Du Plessis said. “We used to think of the three classes and now scientists in the humanities tell us that there are more than those.”

There is what is called the “plutocracy”: they are the wealthiest and own most of the property and economies on the planet. Then we have the “salariat”: those who are in secure salary jobs. The “proficians” are the freelance professionals; the “precariat” are working class; and lastly, the “lumpen-precariat” are under-class characterised by severe poverty.

Economists see the precariat as a new emerging class, and they are the ones who experience the majority of the symptoms associated with the rise in the use of new technology.

“The second symptom is social uprising,” du Plessis said. “Social uprisings happen when members of the precariat come together and identify themselves in a specific space. As a result of technology, the precariat also gets to experience just how much power they have.”

The third symptom is a misconception that technology does not lead to job losses, but generates new labour. However, the labour that is generated is unprofessional and outside the regulations of minimum and living wages.

An example is what is known as microwork. This involves breaking down complex, data-driven activities such as categorising images for search engines, transcribing audio or video clips, or updating databases. These are all activities that machines are still not very good at.

This is low-skill and low-pay work, with very little possibility for professional development and job progression. As a result of such work, we see increasing resistance to the inadequate labour laws the world over.

“The fourth symptom is in highly contested and outdated intellectual property rights (IPR) laws. The precariat are leading the way in saying that ‘this does not meet our needs anymore.’ ”

Many of the issues have a lot to do with the duration of time of these IPR laws and how they can make technology inaccessible to the public. An example is a mobile phone, which might have over 3 000 patents — when you buy the phone, you pay against these patents to keep yourself from breaking the law. This leads to a very costly economy that does not depend on real labour.

“The precariat is currently exposing the dirty underworld of tax. This includes the growth of politically manipulated think-tanks that are changing thinking around the world to suit specific intentions, and there are all kinds of private structures that maximise tax obligations that do not suit the precariat in the work space. So, very often we find that they’ll make cash payments to avoid tax.

“The sixth symptom is where the great danger of the precariat lies. The knowledge they share is in uncontrolled spaces. Previously, this was tightly controlled by other institutions. Essentially, there are no peer reviewers anymore and what has now become the peer reviewer is the public. And that is a very unstable situation.”

Du Plessis says that there is no respect in the digitised world for reflection and contemplation. It delivers instant stimulation and gratification and its causing our brains to give more attention to short-term decisions and to actions.

“There’s a move away from a society made up of individuals with distinctive combinations of knowledge, experience and learning to one in which most people have socially constructed, rapidly acquired views that are superficial and geared towards group approval rather than originality and creativity.”

What these symptoms generally show us is that the regulations developed need to keep up, in a very effective way, to the developments of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Professor Ronnie Seeber of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) spoke at the same panel discussion at SFSA 2017. According to Seeber, regulations always come about as a result of the development of technology and innovation. This was first seen in the late 1800s when Guglielmo Marconi sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean. As a result of this, the International Telecommunication Union was formed for the regulation of telecommunications in the world.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope is a project that is currently being erected in the Karoo (a “radio free zone”) in the Northern Cape province.

“The big challenge with this project,” Seeber said, “is that Icasa had to concur with the regulations in that area, which require some of the most severe conditions for interference in the sense that that telescope could not work if there is any radio interference. The area that is being protected is a few hundred kilometres around that core site. So, it’s a very important thing for us, and we have to find ways of doing that properly.”

Dr Fisseha Mekuria of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) spoke about the different technologies that the department of science and technology is funding in order to implement these restrictions. The CSIR is working on new radio frequency detectors that do not need to send out radio signals themselves. They are also working on creating telecommunications technology that will work outside the frequency ranges that the SKA telescope is probing.

All this means that South Africa will play a leading role in the development of new technologies that will be part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.