From self-driving cars and virtual assistance drones to genetic editing, it is clear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is fundamentally different, mainly due to its exponential rather than linear speed, and the way it is redirecting the way we live, work and, now, relate to each other. Previous industrial revolutions assisted humanity by ushering in digital capabilities across the globe and achieving mass production.
The Industrial Revolution, in the 18th and 19th centuries, involved mechanisation, water and steam power. As a consequence, the steam engine was developed. The Second Industrial Revolution was driven by the need for electricity, the use of electricity resulted in mass production and assembly lining, which expanded industries. The Third Industrial Revolution was centred around computers and automation. Now, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also commonly referred to as Industry 4.0 or the Internet of Things, represents the combination of cyber-physical systems and the Internet of Systems.
It is the idea of smart factories, where machines are augmented with web connectivity and connected to a system that can visualise the entire production chain and make decisions on its own. What makes this revolution so special is the wide range of new technologies—it’s practically impossible to omit the fact that the lines between physical, digital and biological worlds have been blurred. This is present in all disciplines, industries and economies, causing an urgent need to be receptive to those changes. Industry 4.0 questions what it means to be human, as more tasks are becoming automated.
These shifts and disruptions are present in every country, affecting the way we live. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will alter and transform systems and the structures of organisations in the way they are governed and managed. Human beings excel mainly because of experience and creativity. Disruptions challenge the education system to be structured in a way that can prepare for this future because learning how to collaborate with technology will immensely benefit businesses and civil societies across the globe.
There are several positive impacts of this revolution, which have been made possible by the availability of vast amounts of data, including a massive breakthrough in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing. This has dramatically improved the efficiency of organisations.
Another highlight is, by regenerating the natural environment, we will be equipped to manage environmental assets. At the relatively fast rate that global warming is affecting the environment, this new technology can assist in saving it and potentially correcting the mistakes made by previous revolutions. Renewable energy provides reliable energy from a variety of sources, such as the wind and sun. The right technology can harness renewable energy on a scale large enough to replace traditional energy sources. This type of technology helps the planet by reducing greenhouse emissions that damage the atmosphere. Some of the renewable energy sources include biomass, solar, hydropower and geothermal. Electric cars, like Tesla models, don’t rely on fuel but use rechargeable batteries. These batteries are more energy efficient compared to regular vehicles. This is because they convert 62% of their battery charge to power the wheels, unlike traditional vehicles that only use 21% of the energy to power the wheels. Environmental technology is also protecting the earth by saving wildlife. Using GPS tracking systems makes it possible to track the movements and migration patterns of wildlife and poachers. This helps to preserve endangered species. Switching to digital reduces paper waste. Things like robotic farming, precision farming and livestock biometrics are helping advance agriculture and making farming more efficient.
New technology is causing digitally fabricated technologies to interact with the biological world on a daily basis, for example, engineers, designers and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms and the human body. Understanding this relationship will help enhance human livelihood.
Technology has made new products and services possible that increase the efficiency of human being’s personal lives. This is evident in the way we book flights online, buy products online, make a wide variety of payments online, listen to music online, watch movies online or play games online, any of these can now be done remotely. These are improvements that the basic human can enjoy.
There are, however, a number of concerns with regards to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One of the major problems is the extent to which organisations will be able to adapt to these shifts and disruptions. It is imperative that governments formulate policies that enable harmonic coexistence between humans and technology. Security is another big cause for concern, and many of the abovementioned services pose a threat to people’s privacy and security due to the personal information required when utilising these services. As society grows, so does the risk of social imbalance and the likelihood of inequality amongst humans and technology, causing society to fragment.
Bringing it home to Africa, studies show that by 2030, Africa will have the world’s largest potential workforce. Industry 4.0 stands as the continent’s greatest opportunity to bridge the gap between Africa and the rest of the world through a unity of purpose. Africa needs to unite and people in leadership positions are now obliged to create platforms that connect people across sectors in order to maximise on Industry 4.0 opportunities. The signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area and the launch of Smart Africa are good examples of how Africa is practising collective action. This has helped to inspire the younger generation, educating them on how they can embrace the change and think exponentially, developing skills that can adapt to Industry 4.0 and assisting in eradicating youth unemployment.
Africa has the world’s youngest population; Industry 4.0 has been able to play a key role in addressing issues, particularly in South Africa, such as youth unemployment through the tailoring of education models to upskill the next generation. The Department of Trade and Industry’s Industrial Policy Action Plan, together with the South African government, has developed several iterations of industrial policy to support Africa’s industrialisation and optimisation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In March 2018, City.AI, a global non-profit organisation, included South Africa as a new member. It invited local AI practitioners to attend its first-ever AI event in Cape Town, which ran on 27 March 2018. The goal of this event was to encourage peers to share their actionable advice and insights on applied AI experiences, coupled with sessions on computer vision, natural language processing and machine learning. South Africa’s involvement in the community opens the country up to over 50 different communities spread across six different continents.
This opportunity exposed some of the leading South African AI startups, such as Xineoh, which focuses on simplifying AI with machine learning. It uses fairly distinctive algorithms; they are remarkably similar to those used by top players such as Netflix and Amazon. This technology looks at user behaviour in order to determine potential purchasing behaviour and to provide bespoke information to target users—this is going to help several industries, mainly retail.
Then there is Clevva, an AI startup that has its sights on developing AI, which helps people to work more effectively, rather than replacing them with AI systems. Aerobotics focuses on drone technology, which is issued within the mining, agricultural and logistical industries. The drones are used to scan areas and provide essential data to help manage the sites more effectively, also increasing the safety of the workers. Finally, there is DataProphet, the first African machine-learning specialist company, which focuses on providing AI solutions to businesses across the globe.
This demonstrates that South Africa is making huge strides in AI. Ultimately, humans have to collaborate across the government, academia, science, industry and society to maximise the opportunities this revolution brings. The Fourth Industrial Revolution also has massive potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world. The anthem that should constantly be playing in our minds is: “First and foremost, technology tools are created by people to enhance the lives of people.”