The fourth industrial revolution is already here and we're missing it
Artificial intelligence (AI) is coming and coming fast. In combination with innovations such as driverless cars, 3D printing, and drones that are already changing how products are manufactured and delivered, we will start to see a wide range of jobs starting to disappear.
These will initially be in areas such as data capture and administration, but will then start impacting on mining and farm workers before moving on to affecting more skilled people like accountants, lawyers and doctors.
With South Africa's current unemployment challenge, this has serious implications. And this is why we need to accelerate efforts to adopt more AI that empowers people, rather than simply look for AI that replaces people. That said, we also cannot ignore the potential AI has to free people up to do high-value activities, and the opportunity it presents to make people more efficient. And while AI is threatening some types of jobs, it is also driving job creation.
The importance of developing our own local AI market
South Africa needs to support innovation, particularly in its startup sector if the country is to fully take advantage of homegrown solutions to its problems. Too often local organisations look overseas for high-tech answers, when South African built technology, tailor-made for our environment, is right under their noses.
Not only is it cheaper (if only because it is a Rand, not Dollar or Euro spend) but supporting local innovation will drive growth and job creation in those companies. This will have a broader economic impact, creating organisations that are doing the kind of things we erroneously only credit to Silicon Valley, and giving local youth tech role models to aspire to and organisations they can dream of working for.
By growing internal capacity within the country, we also increase the number of digital economy jobs. This reduces the outflow of talent that is leaving our shores in search of more relevant work experience offered within the more rapidly changing developed economies.
We need to shift our education approach to one that asks learners to innovate rather than replicate, think rather than memorise, and critically review information rather than just accepting it.
Re-aligning our education models to support the demands of the digital era
If we are to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution not only do we need to support local innovation but we need to equip our learners - our future workforce - for a world of work that is fundamentally different to today's. Today, even the brightest pupils will leave school ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of a rapidly evolving workplace.
The core assumptions and paradigms underpinning education and training have largely remained the same for almost a century. A core theme is a paternalistic control - those in power determine the 'truth' and use education systems to enforce learned compliance and conformity. Educators act as societies 'brain coders', providing learners with prescribed information and ensuring they get proficient at uploading, retaining, and applying it. Educators play the 'parent role' for learners, rewarding those that learn the code quickest, and who show the highest willingness to comply with the social rules of the school, university or organisation.
Learners who question authority; disagree with the code, or rebel against social norms are typically isolated and ostracised. This is because, in most societies and organisations, people remain a primary means of production. And to scale production, we need people to be effective at doing what they are told. There is little room for democracy and counter-thinking when it comes to executing corporate product, policy, procedure and systems rules.
With the advent of AI, however, the role of making the right decision based on prescribed rules is moving away from people and being handed over to technology. People tend to forget what they learn. And when rules change they need to be retrained. Plus they interpret the rules differently. Technology is far more capable of memorising huge volumes of information, and then making decisions or taking actions based on different situations and contexts. And technology can be kept updated centrally, without the need for hundreds of separate training sessions delivered to hundreds of non-networked brains.
The role of education, therefore, needs a radical rethink if it is to adapt to this profound change. It must stop trying to be the great human coding machine, obsessed with code description (course manuals and e-learning) and code replication (assessments). It must accept that knowing what others already know is no longer a valuable capability. AI is designed to consume this code and learn it far quicker than the human brain. If it is known and can be learned by AI, don't ask people to learn it. Which are most of the content our schools, universities and training colleges focus on?
We need to shift our education approach to one that asks learners to innovate rather than replicate, think rather than memorise, and critically review information rather than just accepting it. It should help people understand themselves deeply, and help each person to perfect their ability to learn constantly, in groups, through activities.
The reality is that our education system is hardwired to deliver compliant minds. Our teachers are trained to teach, not to challenge.
Wherever any decision-making formula is known, AI will soon be able to perform decision-making roles better than people. Think doctors, lawyers, accountants. Anyone who gets paid a lot of money because they have learned the 'code' and can repeat it at a premium.
This then means that people need to specialise in adding value to prescribing decisions. It means asking our brains to think beyond the obvious. To imagine new possibilities, to adapt to new challenges. It means specialising in the unknown, not the known.
The reality is that our education system is hardwired to deliver compliant minds. Our teachers are trained to teach, not to challenge. And curricula are defined by courses, not projects or challenges. For us to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution, we may very well require a learning revolution. I believe it is sorely needed.