Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

As the global economy enters the fourth industrial revolution there are widespread fears that automation could lead to wholesale job losses which will further entrench inequalities.

Several studies have shown that the fourth industrial revolution-which involves a fusion of artificial intelligence and automated machines-has the potential to disrupt every industry.

A McKinsey report published in November 2017 projected that by 2030 at least one-third of the activities of 60% of occupations could be automated.

Another recent study by global consultancy firm Accenture found that close to 6 million jobs in SA will be at risk over the next seven years due to automation. The study highlighted that both blue and white-collar jobs are at risk. These occupations include those of clerks, cashiers, bank tellers, construction workers, mining, and maintenance staff.

A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released earlier in 2018 highlights that the occupational groups that have the highest chance of becoming automated typically do not require specific skills or training. These include assemblers, labourers, refuse workers, and cleaners. The next category at risk includes machine operators, drivers and mobile plant operators, workers in the processing industry, and skilled agricultural workers.

Arthur Goldstuck, a technology analyst and MD World Wide Worx, says SA will see significant labour disruption as robotics and artificial intelligence replace old jobs, and make new skills necessary.

However, a major concern is SA’s education and labour system appears not to be ready for the shifts that will come about as a result of the fourth industrial revolution, says Goldstuck.

"Neither our education or labour system is ready for the shifts that will come…we need frank engagement by these sectors with the necessities of the future, rather than the politicking that has already bedevilled them for decades."

Goldstuck says SA needs to respond to the technological changes on a long term basis.

"For the long-term, we have to change our entire education system to prepare students for a future that will require problem-solving skills and collaboration abilities. Because technology will evolve too fast to prepare for specific technologies in the education system, the approach must be one that evolves abilities like thinking, analytics, problem-solving and collaboration."

A recent study by World Wide Worx in partnership with enterprise software company SYSPRO, revealed that many large South African enterprises are poised to embrace emerging technologies like robotics, the Internet of Things, Big Data and Machine Learning.

In an article published in The Conversation in July, Daniel le Roux, a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, argues that while there are numerous benefits to automation, recent economic trends in the developed world suggest that it may also be a key driver of economic inequality.

Le Roux estimated that occupations performed by almost 35% of South African workers – roughly 4.5 million people – are potentially automatable in the near future.

"But the country appears ill-prepared for this reality. There is little discussion at policy level. Hardly any research has been done to investigate possible future scenarios. There’s also a great deal of uncertainty about how the uptake of automation technology may further drive inequality and preserve the asymmetry in the country’s economy."

Using data collected by Statistics South Africa for its Quarterly Labour Force Survey and an automation index produced by academics from the University of Oxford, Le Roux notes that roughly 14 million South Africans work in around 380 different occupation types. He said 64 of these occupations, employing an estimated 3.6 million workers, have a 90% or greater probability of being automatable in the near future. These occupations include, for example, cashiers, tellers, secretaries and telephone salesmen.

The occupations of another 2.6 million workers, of whom 900 000 are employed as farmhands and labourers, have an 80%-89% probability of being automatable.

"Workers of all skills levels are at risk. Accountants, auditors and dental technicians are all highly skilled and their jobs are extremely susceptible to automation. In the US, a number of automated tax services are already available. But trends suggest that people in low and medium-skilled occupations are generally more at risk than those who require extensive education," said Le Roux.

Government says that it is preparing for the changes that will come about as a result of the technological advances.

It recently appointed an inter-ministerial task team to lead SA’s fourth industrial revolution strategy. The task team is led by Telecommunications Minister Siyabonga Cwele, and includes his trade and industry as well as higher education counterparts.

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said recently there would be "serious winners and losers" as a result of the fourth industrial revolution and the country needs to be well prepared to reap the benefits, or be burdened by the negative consequences.

Davies noted that while technological changes have the capacity to benefit the country and the whole world in many ways, lower skilled people are going to find it more difficult to get jobs. Thus talent development and up-skilling will be crucial.

In July, industry Ministers from BRICS countries signed a declaration on the implementation of the fourth industrial revolution.

"We adopted a declaration. The gist of it is that we have been talking about partnerships within BRICS to prepare us all for the fourth industrial revolution and to ensure that the benefits of this are widely defused and they outweigh the risks and downsides," said Davies.

The fourth industrial will undoubtedly have a major impact and change the the world as we know it, but it remains to be seen whether the impact will be largely positive or negative.