The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Artificial Intelligence – It Will Impact Your Future
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The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Artificial Intelligence – It Will Impact Your Future

The excitement and resultant conversations around the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) have in recent times been relegated to a secondary status. This “out of sight and out of mind” status amidst the vox populi, is as a result of the ongoing global pandemic we are dealing with. However, as public discussion around 4IR has faded into the background, technological leaps and bounds are being made in research and development laboratories as well as factories across the world.

As a society, faced with many immediate concerns, we should not ignore the impact technological advances such as 4IR will have on our long term economic, employment and societal future.

4IR has become part of our day-to-day lexicon, however, it is important for us to understand what the concept of an industrial revolution entails. On the 14th of January 2016, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum clarified what the industrial revolutions are: “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

It could be quipped that most people with mobile devices are consumed by 4IR, as many of us – particularly the youth – already seem to be fused with their phones; the blurring of digital and biological spheres.

Schwab, in the same World Economic Forum article goes on to explain that: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”

As it is, we all encounter artificial intelligence on a daily basis. Autofill functions when using social media or when using search engines, are quintessential examples of the most common instances of machine learning and artificial intelligence we have grown to take for granted. Similarly, when scrolling through social media pages, we have all made a conscious realisation that the very item we were searching to purchase, is advertised on our social media timelines along with similar interests we may have, but a few seconds later.

In a Towards Data Science article, published on the 19th June 2019, Artificial Intelligence is split into two categories. Relevant to the example of autofill machine learning, the second category deals with human enhancement, where machines assist humans with completing a task. “Technologies that enable robots to assist humans in factories by leveraging computer vision is a prime example of how the strength and endurance of a robot can augment the flexible cognition of a human. A more subtle example is recommendation algorithms provided by companies like YouTube and Netflix; these algorithms help humans efficiently solve the task of selecting what to stream next. When having to compose emails and messages, autocomplete language algorithms (e.g., Google’s Smart Compose) are helping humans expedite this task by offering suggestions that can be easily accepted.”

Of greater concern to most however, is the first category of Artificial Intelligence, when humans are replaced, when humans relinquish control of a task completely to machines. Although this proposition may sound like a distant science fiction dystopian, imagined future, such technologies are already in development.

Linked to this, a report by McKinsey and Company, released on the 28th November 2018 found that: “We previously found that about half the activities people are paid to do globally could theoretically be automated using currently demonstrated technologies. Very few occupations—less than 5 percent—consist of activities that can be fully automated.

However, in about 60 percent of occupations, at least one-third of the constituent activities could be automated, implying substantial workplace transformations and changes for all workers.”

In real numbers, McKinsey and Company make the following stark prediction: “We estimate that between 400 million and 800 million individuals could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030 around the world… However, people will need to find their way into these jobs. Of the total displaced, 75 million to 375 million may need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills, under our midpoint and earliest automation adoption scenarios;”

How then do we harness these technological advances as advances  which benefit humanity, rather than suffer unemployment and being obsolete as the machines replace us?

We can take solace in the fact that machines cannot do everything. As James Manyika stated in a discussion titled, Skills that will count in the future – Expert perspectives on the future of work: “We’re going to see more people working alongside machines, whether you call that artificial augmentation or augmented intelligence, but we’re going to see a lot more of that. That’s quite important because it raises our whole sense of imperatives. It means that more skill is going to be required to make the most of what the machines can do for the humans.”

The Central University of Technology in the Free State in a piece called, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the Skill Needs for the Future of Worklists the ten skills needed to “to stay ahead of the curve”:

“One needs to commit to lifelong learning so as to acquire and sustain relevant skills-sets required to succeed in the ever-changing workplace of the future. Some of the skills-sets identified in this regard include:

  1. Creativity
  2. Emotional intelligence (EQ)
  3. Analytical (critical) thinking
  4. Active learning with a growth mind-set
  5. Judgment and decision making
  6. Interpersonal communication skills
  7. Leadership skills
  8. Diversity and cultural intelligence
  9. Technology skills
  10. Embracing change”

The most important skill would be continuous learning and an ability to adapt with the fast-paced shifts in technological frontiers. This ability will ensure that we never become slaves to the rise of the machines.