Naledi Pandor. Picture: VELI NHLAPO/SOWETAN
Naledi Pandor. Picture: VELI NHLAPO/SOWETAN

A task team has been established to advise the minister of higher education, science and technology on how to manage the threats and opportunities posed by the fourth industrial revolution.

The fourth industrial revolution describes the rapid innovation under way in fields like artificial intelligence, 3-D printing and robotics, which is expected to disrupt just about every sector, from manufacturing to the service industry.

The automation expected to flow from the fourth industrial revolution threatens almost 6-million jobs in SA over the next seven years, according to a study by global consultancy firm Accenture. These occupations include clerks, cashiers, bank tellers, construction workers, mining and maintenance staff.

The appointment of the task team was one of former higher education and training minister Naledi Pandor’s last official acts before she relinquished the portfolio at the end of May when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his new cabinet.

Pandor was moved to international affairs and co-operation and Blade Nzimande was appointed minister of higher education, science and technology. The multisectoral task team is chaired by Bo Xing from the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Intelligent Systems, and has been given until January to finalise its work and submit its report to the minister.

The task team is expected to identify the priority areas and interventions that should be undertaken by the minister of higher education, science and technology to “advance digital skills and absorption by industry”, according to a Government Gazette published on June 7.

The eight-member team includes Zeblon Vilakazi, deputy vice- chancellor of research at the University of the Witwatersrand; Colin Thakur, who holds the research chair of digitisation at the Durban University of Technology; Geci Karuri-Sebina, the SA co-ordinator of an African Development Bank study on the fourth industrial revolution; Harambee youth accelerator founder Nicola Galombik; the Mail & Guardian’s Zamantungwa Khumalo; the department of trade and industry’s Ilse Karg and Adrianna Martin from SAP Africa.

Ramaphosa has also established an advisory committee on the fourth industrial revolution, but it has a broader mandate as it is not confined to the higher education sector. The 30-member committee was announced in April, and is chaired by the president.

The department of higher education and training had not responded to Business Day’s request for comment at the time of going to press.

Pandor announced her intention to establish the task team in her budget speech to parliament in May 2018.  It was vital for the department of higher education and training to consider the implications of the emerging technologies of the fourth industrial revolution on universities, colleges and community education and training.

“We’re in the age of the pervasive influence of emerging technologies and artificial intelligence and need responsive skills ... to benefit fully,” she said in her speech.