/ 16 January 2023

How to address inequality embedded in the fourth industrial revolution

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

Ongoing progress with the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) worldwide has been promising. But it appears that, as with the third industrial revolution (3IR), the promised productivity is being delivered to those with online access or monetary means. 

In other words, the current approach of 4IR will progress “those who have the means” and further alienate others. In such a reality, inequality increases, as we are already seeing globally. In this context and downward spiral, existing forms of inequality, such as gender inequality, will also increase.

The question to be grappled with is: how do we progress 4IR and simultaneously contend with inequality? While there are various conceptual solutions to this, for example, universal income, subsidised data, economic zones in the virtual space, and others, a critical area that requires resolution is access to education. In the long run, we believe that education will bring about an inclusive approach to 4IR and related techno-economic participation. 

Education can be provided using online means. Technological advances have improved the way that education is delivered. For example, in areas where there is poor or limited internet access, one can download educational material elsewhere. Such material can then be accessed offline, assessments uploaded in due course and there can be some student-instructor interaction asynchronously. 

While this is not always ideal or convenient, these bring about low-cost alternatives. From a 4IR perspective: learning management systems used today smartly use student data and analytics to better support one’s education journey. 

Most learning management systems are privacy conscious and data analytics are only available on an individual basis, with the student’s permission, or group aggregate data is utilised to improve the learning experience.

For all of the above, data is required. Data costs remain prohibitively high in some emerging economies like South Africa and the continent of Africa more broadly, where there is a dire need for educational access. There are also other cost factors, for example, access to a smart device. But access to devices can be addressed with the right business model or through contracting.

But back to data costs: one solution is zero-rating of education websites. Zero-rating is a concept whereby, for certain websites, internet providers either do not charge or waive data charges. Technologically, the education content or the websites must be locally based for this to be cost-effective.

While technical solutions do exist for international websites or content, this would be much more costly for the internet provider. For a financially viable approach, there should be an incentive for the internet provider to zero rate a local website. The incentive could be a tax rebate. Another commercial cost-recovery model could be through advertising. 

In other words, by enhancing access to education and digital equity, we may find avenues to progress 4IR while continuously challenging inequality. The approach, however, requires greater partnering between education and communications solution providers, platforms, and policies. 

Analogously, zero-rating could be scaled to virtually located economic zones and other areas of strategic importance. Of course, all this means that the data volume and speed required will significantly increase. Regarding this, however, ongoing 5G and future 6G telecommunications research, development and innovation are encouraging. 

Innovations in computing and storage device technology also provide an edge that can be exploited. The emergence of cloud computing as a mode of providing low-cost, highly available, and robust computing frameworks has, among others, given rise to online ed-tech platforms. 

But cloud-computing needs constant high-speed and reliable internet connectivity. The rise of “edge computing” refers to the provisioning of a lightweight version of the cloud computing environment onto the user’s devices. By doing so, storage and compute-capable devices can store and process the entire suite of data and services that would have otherwise been fetched synchronously from the internet. 

The device being used becomes a complete representation of the bare minimum of the cloud environment. Once the user is in a free and in some cases open wi-fi zone, usually provisioned by educational institutes or municipalities, they can synchronise their device environment with the online system. In this way, updated content can be provisioned for the device user and assessment records captured. 

The use of lightweight wireless communication protocols can enable reduced costs for internet connectivity. File compression technologies also exist to enable the size reduction of transmitted data without compromising the content. A reduced file size can therefore become accessible more speedily and in low bandwidth networks. Hence, the future of content management and production is in our hands using the mobile devices we carry every day. 

A way to simply visualise this: think about a closely distributed network of mobile phones that becomes an intermediary with a cloud computing infrastructure that helps to do some of the computing.

To further enhance accessibility, compact “set-top-boxes” such as the ones made for satellite TVs for accessing channels such as DStv exist, but for educational purposes. These “set-top-boxes” consist of educational content that can be accessed by up to 30 users at the same time. This hub can be installed in classrooms, homes, neighbourhoods, community centres and learning institutes alike. 

The hub becomes a gateway to online educational content in remote areas, zones with limited internet access and where the cost is prohibitive. Setting up such a hub costs about $90 once-off and could give seamless access to an online presence for a vast audience in disadvantaged communities.

The path towards addressing inequality and scaling access to online education is fraught with a multiverse of challenges that can be achieved with clear strategies in digital innovations. 

In economies such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Tanzania, where mobile money services are commonplace, a layer of inclusion has been provided derived from the ability of friends and family in the urban areas and in the diaspora to top-up/recharge data bundles/services for those in remote areas. 

A confluence of these digital innovations on a mass scale can become enablers for access and equality.

Professor Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and deputy vice-chancellor: research and internationalisation, University of Johannesburg (UJ), supported by the US Fulbright programme and currently undertaking a research sabbatical at Princeton University.

Dr Malvin Nkomo is an electronic engineer, data scientist, technology entrepreneur, academic researcher conducting research at the Drexel Wireless Systems Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Dr Nkomo is a UJ alumni.

Professor Kaushik Sengupta is a Princeton University-based expert in next-generation integrated circuits and systems.

The authors write in their personal capacities.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.