Picture: 123RF/PHIVE2015
Picture: 123RF/PHIVE2015

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is happening now. What was the third? What was the second? Bet you couldn’t tell me without asking Google. So, according to Google it went steam power and mechanisation; then mass production; then IT; and I guess the latest is a culmination of all of these things: robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

There is a little bit of trepidation when it comes to 4IR. The fear goes as follows: not only are robots going to be able to do anything a human can do as the hardware becomes more resilient, they will be able to do it faster, smarter and, most probably, cheaper. They will learn and process in ways humans cannot and eventually rule the world.

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Some stop at frictional unemployment (a mismatch of employees for jobs), others at unemployment (just not enough jobs altogether), but however they put it, it’s tough not to think about the end of the world.

It’s a pertinent topic and one that we are all paying a lot of attention to. With a little bit of reading and talking to some wiser heads, we can probably rest a bit easy. Here’s why.

The jobs that are most at risk are the things robots can do pretty well: repetitive and easily predictable tasks. Over time, those jobs will likely disappear from the world as we know it

The name including “industrial revolution” is purposefully daunting — and perhaps a tad dramatic. I’d prefer something like the “fourth industrial reshuffling”. The world has endured a fair few of these reshuffles; every so often technological improvements necessitate the reshuffling of the shape of an economy. Some jobs become obsolete and others are created. It’s certainly never world-ending.

For example, the word “Luddite” (one opposed to industrialisation, futurisation, etc) comes from the secret organisation which, in the 19th century, drove a rebellion destroying textile machinery that automated looms for fear of losing their livelihood. The economic term “Luddite fallacy” was also inspired by the Luddites as the irrationality of the fear of technology.

The whole point of the fallacy is that improvements in technology actually create capacity in the economy and therefore wealth. It also maintains that jobs will eventually be redistributed — weavers may become factory workers, who may become social media marketers.

The jobs that are most at risk are the things robots can do pretty well: repetitive and easily predictable tasks. Over time, those jobs will likely disappear from the world as we know it — these include bookkeeping, clerical work and actually driving, if Elon Musk has his way.

There are some things that robots are not very good at and others that the intelligence models can’t capture properly. These are activities that require creative thinking' on-the-fly problem-solving; and social intelligence. Things such as trades, entrepreneurship and management will carry on and will have easier access to cool stuff to make people better at their jobs.

To bring it full circle, let me paint a 4IR future: a homeowner is alerted that their geyser needs to be fixed before it bursts; the problem can be diagnosed with a video or picture. The closest service provider receives this and heads over to fix it. The customer is really impressed. It is noticed that there is a fault in the pipes that will make this problem happen again soon. It is fixed. Everybody is happy.

In this scenario, while there may have been a lost job for a human assessor, there may be another couple of jobs in photo/video analysis to make the intelligence better and the service provider can now do their job better and quicker, and ultimately grow

The truth is that it’s far from the end of the world. There is work to be done to improve our resilience and agility as a country and continent, and that work should start now. In terms of resilience we should be cementing proficiency in the jobs that will likely grow and remain (vocations, for instance); and in terms of agility, we should look to play a part and build the relevant skills for modern times. Not necessarily only in terms of a curriculum for image-processing but a much more dynamic approach to education that makes students more adaptable and ready, and even expectant of change. 

• Khoosal is co-founder of Kandua.