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The Rise of the Machines: Are we ready to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution or be crushed by it?


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Machines are learning so fast, and processing so much big data, that humans can only be seen as deficient. The machines will see us as being sick, having a digital malfunction and in the end in desperate need of repair or deletion.

When reflecting on the Fourth Industrial Revolution I cannot help but think I’m in one of Isaac Asimov’s novels. In his Foundation series he starts off with Hari Seldon, a mathematician who develops a branch of mathematics that can predict the future, but only on a large scale. He foresees the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire, which will result in untold suffering and human misery.

His calculation also shows that there is a way to avert this interregnum to a shorter period and to ensure a more favourable outcome and reduction of human misery. I know, you’re thinking what would we do without artificial intelligence that can compute huge amounts of data and calculations at very high speed. If it wasn’t for this, our beloved world could end.

Now, when talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution as personified through artificial intelligence, we generally are referring to:

  • machine learning,

  • deep learning,

  • robotics,

  • the internet of things.

In other words, the symbiotic relationship between man and machine.

First, technology and the advancement of smart technologies are purported to equate to modernity. If your population is not using smart technologies then you are left behind. Smartphones, smart freezers, smart cars and so much more.

A recent study by Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattuat (TED2018) – What your smart devices know (and share) about you demonstrated that all smart gadgets are built and designed to relay all information back to the manufacturer, all of them. They kitted out an apartment and retrofitted it with any and every smart device under the sun.

Beside the fact that every device needed to have its own password and security features (which in itself can be a nightmare), one common thing they found was that every device reported back to its manufacturer on how it was being used by the recipient client.

Now you may think, what’s the harm in that, but when your dishwasher informs on you and what products you generally tend to use, this provides valuable intel on what products you should be exposed to, where you should shop for it and why it would be better to use and purchase specific products.

Your smart vacuum cleaner does the same by virtue of what it cleans off your carpets daily. It can surmise what you like to eat, be it pizzas or KFC. Your car informs on your movements and which places you like to visit, just like your “Hey Google” device in your lounge can inform on your inquiries, private or not.

In another TED talk Jay Tuck reminds us that artificial intelligence has already been weaponised. We now have smart bombs and missiles which cannot only see the target towards which they are flying but also whether to take the decision to kill or not. Yes, you heard me, to take the decision to kill or not.

In the past, in order to have a measure of control over the machines, we humans insisted that all kill decisions must and can only be made with human participation. Increasingly now, he says, military personnel are insisting that such decisions must be made by the machine. They argue that more precise information/data will be processed and as such a more informed decision would be made, taking all variables into consideration – much more than a human being could process. Also, this would greatly reduce fatality rates and collateral damage, or so they argue.

I have a friend in London who works at Google. His sole job (for lucrative pay, I might add) is working in a highly skilled 15-strong Cambridge- and Oxford-educated team trained in software engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Their sole purpose at work is to develop a “kill switch” for robots and machines. Why, you might ask. Because when they go berserk – and some will – we need to to neutralise them.

Imagine a military drone going haywire and deciding to fire its payload into civilian-populated areas? Or a self-driving car deciding that it mathematically makes more sense to kill an aged person instead of a young life inside the vehicle. This set of moral and ethical dilemmas is another area humans have not yet solved in terms of regulations and legislation.

We’re already finding ourselves unable to control certain functions, which we have completely outsourced to machines. They are learning so fast, and processing so much big data, that humans can only be seen as deficient. The machines will see us as being sick, having a digital malfunction and in the end in desperate need of repair or deletion.

The high-speed processing is such that when we look at modern stock exchanges, the amounts of money moving around the globe in nanoseconds is astounding, to say nothing of the speed with which life-altering decisions are made by not by us, but machines.

Then there are the labour implications of the revolution. It’s all too easy to say we must prepare for the eventuality of job losses and retrain ourselves to be employable in the digital age. But this is easier said than done. A closer examination of the issue suggests that the only real jobs protected from complete overhaul by machines are creative ones – not only the arts, but also high-level jobs such as CEOs and managers in the financial and corporate worlds. Meaning, to state the obvious, the current elite will have job security while blue-collar workers will be threatened by huge job losses due to machines.

Another factor to consider about the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that women, children and the vulnerable have always been excluded and marginalised. Will this revolution deliver more of the same?

Kai-Fu Lee, ex-Google China president, tells of how jobs will be affected in the AI age and how we would need more social workers to deal with the massive numbers of people who will have lost their jobs.

There is also the inescapable puzzle of what to do about the “rights” of robots: should they be unionised to avoid exploitative practices? Just because they can work non-stop does not mean they are not entitled to regular upgrades, maintenance and cleaning. Should the machines pay tax, as proposed by Bill Gates, because one of the obvious negatives when they take over is that there will be a reduction in taxpaying people. These are all issues that deserve our attention if we are to make a success of this industrial revolution.

Critical questions that must be answered are that one undisputed need for this revolution is a constant supply of electricity, without which we cannot have satellite communication to keep smart devices working, fibre connectivity and so much more. How do we guarantee participants in this revolution when Africa has such unreliable electricity grids? When we occasionally have load shedding?

We want to be seen as part of the developed world and import its practises with such ease, but the trust deficit in South Africa renders some of these practices futile. Take the self check-in at our airports. Do everything through the internet, but please come and stand in long queues to check in your bag. What is the point, because self check-in is supposed to speed things up?

In 2008, a decade ago, while studying in Cambridge, I could walk into a shop like Tesco and buy a few goods, go to the automated teller, scan my goods myself and pay for it myself. Where are we with this technology in South Africa?

Do I hear some say, what about jobs?

One day while driving in the UK I had to stop at a filling station. To my chagrin there was no petrol attendant – it was a self-service petrol station. Sh*t I thought, I don’t even know where to begin with filling up my own car, not only with petrol, but also oil. Fortunately I did work it out, only to be confronted again with what I thought was a complicated payment system, no cash, only card, and swipe it here, wait for your receipt and then the pump will be released. You get the point. Are we ready for this, besides the obvious job concerns? Are our people ready for this sharp learning curve? We’d better be.

I could go on. We have recently introduced the tapping system in our bank cards. Again it is supposed to make life easier and faster but alas, not in South Africa, because of the trust deficit. We still expect to enter our pin, and there are ridiculous daily limits on the card. Is this what was intended with the tapping technology?

As for the environment, we are yet to introduce real measures that say we care. I once visited a friend in in Düsseldorf and on returning from an afternoon’s shopping I switched on the flat’s lights at midday because the weather was overcast and hence a bit dark. My friend rushed over and immediately switched off the lights. If the police saw the lights on during the day, he said, they’d come knocking and issue a fine.

Driving at night in Johannesburg, we see corporate buildings lit up like Christmas trees – no regulation that says only one or two floors’ lights may be on and the rest must have day-night switches. If we cannot even get such a simple thing right, what’s to say we’ll be ready to be participants in the revolution?

For all these reasons I ask: are we ready to be participants in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Or has the revolution already passed us by? And we’re oblivious to the fact that as usual, we are already subjects of it. DM


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