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As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, a massive change is unfolding around us in South Africa, no less than in every other country. This change has a name – the Fourth Industrial Revolution – and it has to do with the very way we think, because it has to do with the way that machines think.

Machines, through the rapid development of artificial intelligence, or AI, have begun to do so much of our thinking for us. And that means that we have no option but to do a great deal of thinking about them.

And this is exactly what the University of Johannesburg (UJ) is undertaking. In response to this exciting challenge, and in recognising its responsibility as a technological and academic leader in Africa, UJ has devised a programme of web-based discussion panels that include academics, media, students, alumni and industry experts.

Fit for the future

In providing a series of three cloud-based debates this year that will have very real implications and outcomes for education and the employment to which it is geared, they are, in a very concrete sense, Cloudebates, an integral part of UJ’s commitment to asking and answering the question of whether, as a society and as individuals, we are fit for the future.

And because they are Cloudebates, everyone is invited.

Everyone is invited because everyone is affected. As AI becomes central to our way of living as a society, UJ well understands that it is individuals who need to help guide and mould the process in order to ensure that benefits are balanced with equality, that needs are balanced with dignity and that innovation is balanced with responsibility. And it is with this understanding that UJ wants to provide the platform for the ongoing conversation.

The framework for the first Cloudebate is, “the way tomorrow works – man vs machine”, and it takes place from 18:00 to 19:30 on 26 September, with another two scheduled in late October and November.

While each Cloudebate will focus on its own theme, the overriding subject is the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on society and on our needs, our rights and our responses as individuals to what is shaping, and perhaps reshaping, our humanity.

Today’s questions for tomorrow’s world

With the increasingly rapid disruption that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is rolling out, we need to react by thinking disruptively. We are creating a world in which taxi drivers, machine operators, miners, travel agents – even doctors and television match officials – might in time become obsolete.

Enabled by the centrality of information, this new world poses important questions about education, training of all kinds, the market realities that young people face as they set out to earn a living, and about employment itself.

As the leading academic institution on the continent in the field of AI, UJ has taken these and other related vital considerations to heart. The university sees its responsibilities as being associated not only with being in the forefront in technology and research in Africa, but also with the needs of society, the individual, and importantly, the implications for employment and economic well-being.

Creating tomorrow

In this new world of automated and autonomous services, manufacturing, and increasingly even medicine, art and creativity, UJ is not content just to lead in developing highly sophisticated and relevant AI tools on and for our continent.

It is determined to investigate through its Cloudebates and other initiatives the meaning of the increasing dominance of AI for our society, and for the individuals within it striving so hard for economic emancipation.

The university is robustly facing the challenges posed by the need to understand how we deal with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while at the same time contributing to it with new, indigenous technologies.

It is by leading in research, by pioneering in technologies relevant to the developing needs of our country and our continent, and by understanding the implications of the revolution taking place around us, that UJ is reaffirming its commitment to creating tomorrow. DM