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Picture: 123RF/WILLYAM BRADBERRY
Picture: 123RF/WILLYAM BRADBERRY

As the end of the second decade of the 21st century approaches, a massive change called the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unfolding in SA and around the world. It has to do with the way we think, because it’s about the way that machines think.

Through the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI), machines have started doing so much of the thinking for us. And this means we have to do a great deal of thinking about them and their effect on all the spheres of our lives.

In response to this exciting challenge, and as a technological and academic leader in Africa, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has devised a programme of web-based discussion panels called Cloudebates.

These Cloudebates, which comprise panellists from academia, the media, students, alumni and industry experts, are an expression of the conundrum we find ourselves in – straddling real-world issues virtually, as they are live-streamed to a virtual audience.

The Cloudebates are housed in an online hub (www.uj.ac.za/4IR) of UJ 4IR related research and stories. You can log on, view past debates and sign up for future discussions.

In this new world of automated and autonomous services, manufacturing and, increasingly, even medicine, art and creativity, UJ is not content to simply lead in developing highly sophisticated and relevant AI tools on and for our continent. It is determined to investigate, through its Cloudebates and other initiatives, the implications of the increasing dominance of AI for our society, and for the individuals within it who strive so hard for economic emancipation.

The university is facing the challenges posed by the need to deal with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while contributing to it with new indigenous technologies. UJ is interested in understanding the way tomorrow works and simultaneously creating tomorrow by ensuring future-fit graduates.

Fit for the future

To date, UJ has hosted three Cloudebates and will continue with more into 2019. Everyone is invited to the Cloudebates because everyone is affected. The topics covered since September are “Man vs Machine”, “Is 4.0 the Demise of Childhood” and most recently “Digitally Equal?

“The way tomorrow works” is the guiding light for UJ Cloudebate themes. How would tomorrow work if man were eventually pitted against machine? Is this even a possibility? The first debate included panellists Prof Babu Paul, head of UJ’s Institute for Intelligent Systems, and Toby Shapshak from Stuff Magazine.

They, along with the other esteemed panellists, toyed with the somewhat disturbing idea that man may come up against machine. Could the dystopian futures portrayed in so many Hollywood movies ever become a reality? Would man essentially become redundant in the world of work? How would man find purpose in a world where machines tended to our every need?

The question that followed the themes from the first UJ Cloudebate was: “How do we ensure that our children are fit for this relatively unknown future while at the same time grounded by the traditional principles of the past? And, does that even matter in this new world?”

Generational theorist Graham Codrington; UJ’s early childhood development specialist Prof Elizabeth Henning; and – once again in the role of facilitator – Prof Ylva Rodney-Gumede explored the balancing act parents and teachers will have to juggle. There seemed to be general consensus on the old adage of leading by example, by paying attention to how much media you consume, with regards to guiding your children – but the dominant theme of the education system in SA’s readiness for 4.0 became a highlight.

These Cloudebates could not have taken place or may not have reached certain people interested in the topics because of “Data accessibility in an emerging economy” – the subject of the third Cloudebate. It is evident that the new technological world driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution depends on access to data.

The implications for SA could be crippling, especially for an economy that could use this small window of opportunity to leap forward. Accessibility could close the divide within this already disparate society where the poor get poorer and the wealthy make more money because they have the tools to do so. Panellists confronted the different angles posed by this contentious topic from a legal, human rights and an operational and technological viewpoint.

Dr Doorsamy, senior lecturer in the faculty of engineering and the built environment, represented UJ and, among other industry experts, Dudu Mkhwanazi, a digital inclusion advocate and CEO of Project Isizwe, represented civil society. Mkhwanazi’s standpoint is that public-private partnerships are the cornerstone of broadening access.

Log onto www.uj.ac.za/4IR to view past Cloudebates and to sign up for future discussions.

This article was paid for by the University of Johannesburg.