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Let’s not fear artificial intelligence, let’s embrace it


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

Why is there so much fear around the Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence? Partly, it’s because of the narrative that robots are taking over. They are (sort of), but let’s not be scared by that.

Amid the worldwide panic over the coronavirus outbreak, an important breakthrough in the health sector happened last week that might have gone unnoticed. It was announced that a drug to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was created entirely by artificial intelligence (AI). OCD, an anxiety condition in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions), that make them want to do something repetitively, is among the underrated mental ailments affecting human beings.

In an unprecedented move last week, the first non-man-made drug molecule produced by Japan’s Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma and Exscientia in the UK is being tested in humans. Where a typical drug would take five years to develop, this was completed in just 12 months – a remarkable feat that could prove to be a game-changer for the pharmaceutical industry. 

The drug was created by using a set of steps, which AI was able to work through faster than any human could. Leading AI company Exscientia’s chief executive, Andrew Hopkins, explained that there were a lot of precise decisions needed to engineer a drug and that the algorithms used could be applied to any disease. AI is the art of building intelligent machines using data and algorithms. An algorithm is a set of rules that instructs a computer to perform a task.

As the chief executive of Scorpion Computer Services, Walter O’Brien noted, “humans have 3% human error and a lot of companies can’t afford to be wrong 3% of the time anymore, so we close that 3% gap with some of the technologies. The AI we’ve developed doesn’t make mistakes.” 

We have also seen the capabilities of AI in responding to the coronavirus, which emerged in China earlier in 2020. In the subways in Beijing, passengers are being screened for symptoms of the virus by AI and temperature scanners. This is the very nature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which is an industrial era that is characterised by intelligent machines that are connected and blur the divisions between humans and machines.

Of course, the 4IR is not just confined to healthcare. Following the Academy Awards on 10 February 2020, a debate raged on about whether AI could create an Oscar-worthy movie. After all, AI was recently used to create an artwork considered such a masterpiece that it sold for $432,500 at British auction house Christie’s. An Oscar does not seem quite so far-fetched.

It was announced in 2019 that computer-generated imagery (CGI) would be used to bring the deceased actor James Dean back to life in digital form for a Vietnam war movie called Finding Jack. Using thousands of images and footage of Dean, AI will create a virtual version of the Hollywood star that can be used in films and videogames. While recreating an actor for an entire movie is new, the technology has been noticeably used in Hollywood over the last few years. 

CGI was used to complete Carrie Fisher’s scenes in Star Wars after her death during filming. Robert de Niro was de-aged in The Irishman using similar technology. These developments are just one aspect of film-making, and perhaps in a few years, we will have films featuring the AI-recreated Madiba in his own voice and image.

It is unsurprising then that just this week US President Donald Trump announced that billions of dollars of the government’s budget had been earmarked for AI research and development over various government agencies, including $1-billion for non-military AI research. This, of course, is part of a game of catch up with China, which has the most considerable AI capabilities in the world – and which Forbes magazine has touted as the first AI superpower.

Last week, when President Cyril Ramaphosa took up his post as Chairman of the African Union (AU), he called for the establishment of an AI Forum in Africa. Why are we shifting gears towards these technologies? As Ramaphosa put it, “the 4IR presents our continent with great opportunities. The uptake of digital technologies will lead to improved competitiveness and provides fresh opportunities for inclusive growth. Millions of our continent’s young citizens are digital natives and we must drive a skills revolution to enable Africa to take a quantum leap into the economy of the future.”

With a push towards the 4IR and the remarkable achievements that have already been made, why is there such fear associated with it? This, perhaps, is best explained by worries that the robots are taking over. This is not entirely unfounded. Substantial disruptions will affect all industries and the entire systems of production, management and governance, and will undoubtedly transform all aspects of 21st-century life and society, which will result in massive job losses with machines taking over many functions done by human beings.

Global consultancy firm McKinsey predicts that the 4IR will displace 800-million workers in 42 countries. Much of this disruption has already been seen in the banking industry, for instance. In 2019, many in the sector were ready to embark on what was expected to be the biggest strike in 99 years in the banking sector, following thousands of retrenchments and the closure of branches. This came after various banks announced that software robots would automate different work processes, which would substitute the work of humans. 

It is not just low-skilled, repetitive jobs that are being automated, but high-skilled jobs are at risk too. As US politician Andrew Yang put it, “automation is no longer just a problem for those working in manufacturing. Physical labour was replaced by robots; mental labour is going to be replaced by AI and software.”

So where does South Africa currently stand on the 4IR? Earlier in 2020, a report by Deloitte found that while C-suite executives were on board with the concept of the 4IR, many had not managed to draft an action plan to turn goals into reality and that there was a disconnect in translating the 4IR priorities into business practices. This has also rung true for states. The Presidential Commission on the 4IR (PC4IR) is drafting the 4IR strategy for South Africa. 

Already more than 20 countries have strategies in place. As South Africa, we ought to prime our people, systems, organisations and regulatory structures to create the fit-for-purpose environment for the 4IR. Furthermore, we ought to look at coordinating, overseeing and giving strategic direction to the momentum that is required. Additionally, we ought to invest in human capital, establish the National AI Institute, secure and avail data to enable innovation, incentivise future industries, platforms and applications of 4IR technologies. We also ought to build 4IR infrastructure, as well as review and amend, or create legislation in line with 4IR.

There is a way to go for this to unfold. Our foray into the 4IR is still in its infancy, but as we have seen with the rapid pace of change globally, it is an urgent task. The focus now needs to be on subverting our fears around job losses – or the fightback from the robots we have seen in one too many blockbusters – and creating an environment that fosters this disruption. We can fight our fears by embracing 4IR. After all, if we had cowered in doubt throughout the industrial revolutions that came before this one, we would still be trapped in the dark ages and society as we know it today would seem far-fetched.

As former US President Franklin D Roosevelt put it: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” DM


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