The Noise about the 4IR: Why Africans must ask the Right Questions

One of the most common words in every policy document from governments and NGOs is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Everybody is talking about this industrial revolution but it is not clear if the real issues are being adequately addressed. Many of the technologies that are driving the 4IR are also being discussed in the government, NGO, private sector and the academia. Talks of Artificial Intelligence, IoT, Robotics, Blockchain, etc. are now very common. Some governments in Africa have even formed 4IR committees with the mandate to discover how these technologies can be used to enhance the socio-economic profile of their nations.

Africa was left behind in the first three industrial revolutions. We are still trying to catch up. The first industrial revolution (circa 1765) was about mechanization, water power and steam power. Man discovered that by using some sort of power, he was able to use machines to do certain tasks faster. The second industrial revolution (circa 1870) introduced the mass production assembly line and electricity. The likes of the Ford Motor Company used the concept of the mass-production assembly line to make an otherwise extremely expensive car to be affordable. The third industrial revolution (circa 1969) introduced automation and computing into industrial systems. In these three revolutions, the common theme was efficiency and productivity. The Europeans started it, Americans got on board, and the Asians started pulling their weight from the third industrial revolution. The Asians, beginning with the Japanese, introduced more efficient production systems and principles, such as lean production made popular by Toyota, and practised all over the world today. In the last few decades, the Chinese have arisen to the occasion and made huge strides in technology.

The technologies that drive the 4IR are revolutionary, not just because of their novelty but because for the first time, the revolution is beyond hardware and software, it also integrates biological aspects. For instance, due to the advances in data science, the rate at which human gene editing has been improved is mind-blowing. In 2003 the human genome project cost about 2.7B USD on its completion, but by 2006, the cost had plummeted to 300,000 USD. In 2016, sequencing a human gene was done for 1000 USD. The exponential improvements in computing speed with lower costs and the big reduction in computer storage costs contribute to the ability to commoditize such complex tasks like gene sequencing, editing, etc. When this technology reaches the maturity level targeted, diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s, and the sickle cell will be treated easily. The computing power and data storage space on an average mobile smartphone is much more powerful than what powered man to space for the first time.

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The Fourth Industrial Revolution as mentioned above goes beyond improving industrial efficiencies to the capacity to make life better; we cannot undermine the powerful efficiencies introduced by the technologies and their effects on the way we live and work. Artificial intelligence combined with other technologies in the 4IR introduces a level of autonomous decisions that machines can now take, which can eliminate the need for certain kind of human interventions. It is now possible for companies to detect fraud, faults, and other customer experience issues much better with certain machine learning algorithms than previously done by humans. Companies like Netflix suggest movies to us in ways that are scalable. Try and think of the possibility of having human agents suggesting movies to millions of customers every day.

Many industries are embracing these technologies and as expected, some job profiles are slowly becoming extinct. These realities are causing considerable panic worldwide with people asking questions about the future of work. Many job titles today will not be available in the next few years. With every industrial revolution, this same phenomenon was present. It is not a new thing and most of the panic should actually be redirected towards asking the right questions.

The Questions We Must Address

Education 

For every industrial revolution, education needs to be changed. China prepared for the 4IR by concentrating on quality education. It was not just any kind of education but a big focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. China has surpassed the United States in annual STEM graduate production and research output and is now regarded as a real leader in Artificial Intelligence and other 4IR technologies. Africa has a lot to learn from China in this case. You cannot be a leader in the 4IR age without having an army of producers. This is not to underestimate other academic degrees but to emphasize the need for balance, with a focus on quality education. And it does not start with tertiary education. With Nigeria’s high number of out-of-school children, it is obvious that any form of technological leadership will be virtually impracticable. The importance of local knowledge in technology leadership cannot be overemphasised. Algorithms built abroad for African usage will most likely be biased, and that is why we need to have these skills and build locally. Again, the foundation is the most critical thing. If elementary education is bad, catching up in university will be difficult. 

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Our obsession with just getting a degree without proper learning outcomes is another sad reality in Africa. The curriculum taught in schools at all levels must be directed toward a 360-degree education. 

Infrastructure 

It is possible to leapfrog previous industrial revolutions and excel in the latest one. But it might be unsuccessful without the right infrastructure in place. Electricity is crucial, and so is high-speed internet. The combination of both will contribute to individuals becoming more productive with the ability for real innovation.

Business Model Innovation 

The exponential technologies enable scalability on a big level. The sharing economy, which drives the business models of companies like Uber, Airbnb has become a major reality of the 21st century. Many companies will have to innovate their business models or die. Imagine the difference between WhatsApp’s business model and that of airtime sales for calls.

Liability 

Governments and companies must find ways of asking relevant questions in the 4IR age. If a robot working in a factory injures a human worker, who will be liable? If an algorithm makes a mistake and sends an innocent person to jail in the future, who will be responsible? We must start asking these questions now so that we will not be surprised when AI or robots make mistakes.  

How Can You Future-Proof Your Skills?

In light of these, it is critical for you as a working professional or student to have a proper sit down with yourself. The first step is to admit the fact that these technologies are here to stay. Technology will disrupt certain industries and jobs, but will at the same time enhance others. Many years ago, middle-level management employees had secretaries/typists, but with the advent of the personal computer, most people now type their own letters. Typing as a career became a hard sell about two decades ago. However, it brought about an extra skill requirement for employees – computer literacy. Those who were able to master these skills proudly listed it on their CV. Some still do, but it is laughable today. In the 4IR age, the requirements have changed. You now need to understand the way technologies like Machine Learning and its parent, Artificial Intelligence can help your company to achieve its strategic objectives. Your data analytics skills must now be top-notch, and making inferences from data must be second nature. You are not expected to be a programmer but you must be able to do more than define what Blockchain is as a financial service professional. Your level of critical thinking must also be first-rate. Yes, AI is now being used to make decisions, but think of a nice working relationship with machines to give your company a competitive advantage. I believe that a symbiotic relationship between technology and human beings who understand it is the best way for organizations to exploit the advantages offered by these technologies.

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If you are in a job that is highly predictable and can be modelled in certain listed steps, you are exposed to disruption. My advice for professionals is to face the truth about how easy it is for their present tasks to automated, and then either accept this or decide to upskill and add more value to their daily tasks. The primary ambition of a company is to increase profitability by being more efficient than the competition.

There will be countless opportunities for those who are able to unlearn, relearn and imbibe continuous learning throughout their lifetime. The ones who are at great risk are those who are stuck in their present ways of working and those who think the only place they can learn are formal institutions like universities. The 21st-century workforce that will be relevant is one that is flexible and can take on new skills. It is a personal choice to continue to be relevant in the age of the fourth industrial revolution.

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