Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 5 September 2018

Humanity 4.0 – Is the human race ‘future fit’?

Amid talk of the 4th Industrial revolution (4IR) and Industry 4.0, I came across the term Humanity 4.0 on a recent visit to Singapore. When looking at the future of work, we must ask the question what is the meaning of life?

Human beings are known for their destructive behaviour: witness two world wars, numerous global conflicts, destroying our climate and – if all indicators are correct – ourselves within the next hundred years.

Totalitarianism, slavery, the Rwanda genocide and the Holocaust are still more indicators of our destructive power.

I am reminded of CP Snow’s Rede Lecture at Cambridge in 1959, titled Two Cultures. His thesis was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was split into the titular two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and that this was a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems. Scholars were concerned with the divergence created between the physical and social sciences within the academy.

In short Snow’s argument can be summed up as follows:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? I now believe if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?, not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So, the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.”

Snow criticised the educational system for over-rewarding the humanities at the expense of scientific and engineering education despite its obvious contributions to the world. I mention this lecture because time seems to have reversed these roles within our current education sector.

With the advent of the 4IR, how will human intelligence evolve? We can hardly keep pace with the speed with which machines learn and advance today. Deep learning, machine learning, blockchain technologies and AI are all moving at a speed of nanoseconds whilst we are still trying to understand some of these technologies.

So, on the one hand you have human beings that do not have a great history on our planet (in fact they are actively destroying it) and on the other hand you have machines that are efficient and effective in handling certain important tasks.

What must the modern university do to address these challenges and how does it adapt its current offerings and coursework to effectively prepare our students for this era? What form should critical theory take in this day and age? It is common cause that machines and robots will not be able to master areas such as imagination, creativity, emotional intelligence and managerial responsibilities, the last because it does at times involve irrational decisions which a machine would find difficult to compute. As a manager you know that worker X has not performed optimally but because he/she is one year from retirement, you decide to reassign him/her to perform more menial work until their retirement.

Another consequence of the 4IR which we will have to deal with will be the post-work era, when people become irrelevant as workers. There will be an increase in inequality no doubt, unemployment will rise regardless of all the talk of reskilling and upskilling. Our freedoms will be curtailed and Big Brother will be watching you at all times. Already we are experiencing bounded decision making, meaning we make decisions even when we cannot compute the enormous data, we simply believe the machine. Machines will also give rise to new forms of discrimination. You only have to listen to how our street names are pronounced, or shall I say mispronounced, on GPS systems or how our faces cannot be recognised through facial recognition technologies.

Universities must consider all this and ask how we adapt to the new reality. Social scientists must come to the party and begin to realise their contribution to this 4IR. For starters, machines learn through data and, as such, massive data collection exercises will have to be undertaken in almost every aspect of human endeavour. The design of lecture theatres must change and teaching and learning methods with it. Training in certain critical fields such as nursing, social work, teaching and medicine will also be the responsibility of universities. All those jobs that require a human touch one may argue. Because compassion is not as yet an algorithm, robots will find it difficult to perform these jobs.

Already we know that technology has changed the manner in which we interact with each other as humans. In trains, planes and automobiles we hardly speak to each other because we are on our smart devices communicating, reading, studying and so forth. Children no longer play outside and the only outdoor exercise they get is at their schools – and that is if they attend good schools. They are consumed with electronic games, mobile technologies and already coding their own software. Naturally, some parents think this to be a good thing and it is an indicator of their children’s intelligence.

In a world with limited resources, where our history shows that we are prepared to kill for such resources, how will Industry 4.0 assist in these realities? How if at all can 4IR help to alleviate our triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality?

In as much as the university has a role in knowledge creation, it also has a role in shaping our future. We must produce skills for 4IR: critical thinking, people management, emotional intelligence, judgement and negotiation, and cognitive flexibility.

Like CP Snow and his lecture on two cultures and the scientific world, we too now have two cultures to contend with, sciences and humanities, but in a different form: Industry 4.0 and Humanity 4.0

Humanity 4.0 probably only finds itself at Humanity 2.0 if we look at our recent history. Adapting to the fast-changing world is frankly imperative. We can achieve this through multi-disciplinary education where humans and social sciences understand science and technology and vice versa.

So, in as much as we concern ourselves very much with Industry 4.0 and its positive effects on our current and future lives, we too must concern ourselves with where the human race features in this equation. Is our development such that we are indeed ready and able to become participants in this the 4th Industrial Revolution?

Time will tell whether we are indeed, future fit. DM

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