‘South Africa must take its rightful place as active player in the 4th Industrial Revolution’

The Presiding Officers of Parliament hosted the 4th Industrial Revolution Roundtable Discussion to ascertain how Parliament could position itself to harness the opportunities it presents and to offset any negative challenges it may pose to the socio-economic make up and the development agenda of our country in future.

In his opening address, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Mr Lechesa Tsenoli, stated that Parliament has invited Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, one of the leading innovators, a leading scholar in this field in the country and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, to be the keynote speaker in this debate because Parliament wanted to get both a bird’s eye view on this matter.

He said they initiated this debate to put Parliament in a better position in its law-making and public participation processes on this matter � and to essentially help simplify what is at stake and what public participation modalities would be needed to leverage the opportunities and offset the challenges that this revolution would bring to bear on our socio-economic situation. In our law-making processes we would be required to come up with effective public participation modalities around this matter and is it therefore ideal that we get a better understanding of its socio-economic impact. And how Parliament can provide guidance through best practices to craft legislation that can help to yield better research and socio-economic yields in this area, he said.

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Baleka Mbete, admitted that the 4th Industrial Revolution would certainly alter the way we live, work and relate to each other. And that is an inevitable reality. But of concern to her is that there is no single policy framework and plan which articulates our national blueprint in this regard. This would help us in conducting our oversight, during our law-making processes and in initiating our public participation to determine what policy choices we have to take as a country in implementing it. We need this plan to maximise the positives that this revolution will bring about to improve the lot of the poor. And in bringing about an inclusive growth, economic development and in improving our science and technology capabilities as a country, she said.

But also, such a plan could bring about an integrated intervention strategy in both the public and private sectors, she said. This could help to mitigate threats posed by this revolution and improve our law-making and oversight mandate as a legislative sector over it.

Prof Marwala, decried the fact that Africa has been an active spectator of the first, second and third revolutions. He urged the country to take its rightful place not as a spectator, but an active player in this revolution. He said the underlying basis of the 4th Industrial Revolution is artificial intelligence. This is not a unique sphere of knowledge or influence, it is in fact derived from nature, he said. Nature is the best artist, we must learn from it, attests one of the quotes he projected in his presentation. We call this artificial because it is man-made, and intelligence is derived from the intelligence that man has derived from nature and simulated it digitally using the technology at our disposal, he said.

He cited the utilisation of robots to undertake certain tasks as a case in point. He said those involved in this sector have, for instance, studied the activities of an ant colony to come up with advanced digital simulation that mankind has ever experienced. Some notions or design prototypes of an air conditioner are derived from an ant colony.

He credited his grandmother as the first engineer he encountered in his life. My grandmother did pottery, gathered clay, wood to make fire to prepare for the production of her clay pots. After they went through the furnace, she would take them out, knock them, and listen to the sound as a way of determining those that would last and would destroy those that would not last. This is the same process I used in my Master’s dissertation to determine the quality of a good and bad engine, the difference is that I used automated machines to determine their quality.

But when my grandmother got old, her ears failed her and she started destroying even those that were in good quality. What does this imply? She did that because she did not have an automated machine to standardise her decision-making processes.

Prof Marwala has an illustrious career and has innovations for the health and economic sectors. Emphasising the need for us to be active players, he said the IPhone 10 uses face recognition to unlock it, but it has been found out that it does not recognise the faces of Africans and Asians.

It has also been found out that some voice recognition devices invented oversees do not recognise Xhosa clicks, it registers them as noise. This shows that there are still gaps for us in the market to exploit. And these anomalies won’t be addressed because these devices are not made for us.

The Minister of Higher Education, Ms Naledi Pandor, implored our universities to be proactive in exploiting the opportunities posed by this revolution. Our universities should be at a cutting edge of this technology. We can have best policies or legislation but if we don’t upskill our students at universities, and their research, curriculum and teaching ethos are not in line with this revolution, we would not reap its benefits.

To achieve that, we need to bring innovation to the centre of our research hubs, she said. We need to have more research chairs that will provide South Africans with fertile basis to engage with the 4th Industrial Revolution, and to determine what we need to do as a country to get the best impact out of it.

During the question and answer session, Members of Parliament raised a concern about the impending job losses as result of this revolution. Prof Marwala responded: It is not possible to ban the artificial intelligence brought by this revolution, what we need to do is to upskill our people so that they can take advantage of the opportunities that this will bring to us.

Given its inevitability, it means that the state has to refocus its budgeting policy in favour of technological development if we were to benefit from the gains that this revolution presents to us, said the Chief Whip of the NCOP, Mr Seiso Mohai. In light of these developments, there is a major realignment needed in how we appropriate the state’s budget. As it is now, we would not be in a position as country to leverage any socio-economic benefits that this revolution may present to us, he said.

Source: Parliament of the Republic of South Africa