Opinionista Tshilidzi Marwala 28 May 2020

Covid-19 has forced us into the fast lane of the 4IR super-highway

Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic that has seen entire countries locked down, we can no longer dismiss the Fourth Industrial Revolution as mere rhetoric. Keeping economies functioning while curbing the spread of the virus has hastened the shift towards the 4IR.

Amid the spread of the coronavirus that countries across the world are reeling under, I stumbled upon a Facebook group chat by some university students who sought to pour scorn on my “preachings” about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

“So guys, it’s been almost two months since we’ve been stuck at home because of this corona thing. Where is 4IR that the Vice-Chancellor has been preaching about in this crisis. He has been talking about it as if it’s the magic wand that can solve every problem in the world?” commented one student, with a tongue-stuck-out emoji. “The whole thing is overhyped guys. It’s a fluke!” remarked another student.

This type of pessimism about the 4IR goes beyond ordinary folks like students. For the last few years, there have been two camps. On the one side are those who acknowledge the 4IR. For quite some time, we have known that this is a fundamental paradigm shift and that we were on the cusp of seeing every facet of society change.

On the other side are those who have dismissed the 4IR as a string of buzzwords whose currency remains largely unknown. Yet now, amid a global pandemic that has necessitated that entire countries lock down, we can no longer dismiss the 4IR as mere rhetoric. In fact, the dilemma of keeping economies functioning while curbing the spread of the virus has hastened the shift towards the 4IR.

The detractors will do better to know that the 4IR is an era when intelligent technologies permeate all aspects of our lives which is not only envisioned to grow economies exponentially, but is poised to be vital to finding solutions to some of our most deep-rooted problems. It is the current that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres through AI, automation, biotechnology, nanotechnology and communication technologies.

It is worth noting that contrary to the earlier industrial revolutions, 4IR is based not on a single technology, but on the confluence of multiple developments and technologies. It is already changing how we live, work and communicate and by virtue of that is reshaping government, education, healthcare and commerce. We have witnessed this in multiple forms in recent weeks.

As Microsoft’s chief scientist Eric Horvitz put it in a recent research paper, “optimising machine learning performance in isolation overlooks the common situation where human expertise can contribute complementary perspectives, despite humans having their own limitations, including systematic biases”. Simply put, humans and AI systems work better when they tackle problems together.

As work and education move online, we are renewing our focus on 5G technology. We are entering an era where data is becoming as essential to us as many of our other basic needs — 5G is not merely a marketing tool for telecommunications companies to stay competitive. It is a telecommunications technology that is sufficiently localised to transmit information very fast.

For instance, healthcare has been one of the leading industries in adopting the technologies of the 4IR. A study by Lancet Digital Health suggested that the diagnostic performance of deep-learning models is equivalent to that of healthcare professionals. This, of course, does not mean doctors are obsolete. Instead, AI takes over many of the time-consuming and tedious aspects of the profession. Faster and earlier diagnoses give you scope to treat more patients.

On a global scale, there is an AI race to find solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic. Though a vaccine may still be elusive for a while, given that testing and approval could take anywhere between 12 to 18 months without any glitches, AI has been an essential tool for diagnosis and prevention. Algorithms are being deployed to screen chest X-rays to differentiate between pneumonia, tuberculosis and the coronavirus. AI is computer software that performs intelligent tasks that usually require human beings, while an algorithm is a set of rules that train a computer to perform precise tasks. Similarly, an AI programme has been developed that predicts with up to 80% accuracy which coronavirus patients will develop acute respiratory disease.

This can identify early patients who will likely require hospital beds and those who can be sent for home care. There are, of course, limitations to current AI technology which is focused on reading pictorial scans such as ultrasounds, X-rays and CT scans. However, these have proven to be beneficial tools in managing treatment.

Think about the tools that have been put in place locally to quell some fears. As the coronavirus hit South Africa, many flocked to a digital platform called GovChat that connects ordinary people to government services. The service delivery notification service is used to support people in using their mobile phones to alert health authorities and be directed to appropriate health facilities. The data also assists authorities to identify Covid-19 hotspots at any given time to manage resource allocation.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), as well as the Department of Science and Innovation, have developed a dashboard to consolidate the data. The information will help the government’s Covid-19 National Command Council better manage the pandemic. Together with Telkom and Samsung, the government is effectively able to track and trace people who may have contracted coronavirus, using data such as geographic information system mapping from their phones.

At the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the Library Makerspace team has been using 3D printing, which builds materials through a layering process, to produce reusable surgical face shields to satisfy the increasing requirement for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

Researchers at UJ and Beihang University in Beijing have collaborated to identify an alternative solution to confirm compliance with social distancing processes that were employed by most countries worldwide. The result is an unmanned aerial vehicle named Rudderless. This is a new generation of drones with guaranteed safety and superior performance.

It is not just the healthcare industry — which is under pressure to find solutions — that is adopting the 4IR at a faster pace. With the promotion of self-isolation and social distancing and bans on business travel, many have been forced to work from home. In a fragile global economy, where work can go on, it has had to. This was perhaps the starkest example of the future of work. This, of course, was an inevitable shift for many. A 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) report noted that fast internet, artificial intelligence (AI), big data and cloud technology are the major disruptors in the workforce. Of course, as the 4IR becomes more entrenched in society, companies that do not adapt to these changes risk being left behind in an extremely competitive environment.

As businesses look to alternative methods, it is not just the use of mobile phones and laptops that have made this a possibility. There is also technology in place that can be deployed to make this more effective. For instance, Microsoft Teams was developed as a shared communication and collaboration platform for video meetings, document collaboration and file sharing and storage.

Supervisors are communicating via platforms such as WhatsApp while our modules have been placed online through Blackboard, for instance. This shift to remote teaching and learning has not been without its challenges, given that many students struggle with access to devices and data.

Citrix Workspace is software that allows multiple users to remotely access and operate Windows desktops via PCs, tablets and other devices. Similarly, TeamViewer can be used for remote support, desktop sharing, and file transfers. Slack is an instant messaging platform designed specifically for organisations where messages can be shared across channels, and private messages can be used to share sensitive information or documents.

Trello can be used to track progress, tasks and collaboration, which not only helps in terms of delegating work, but can aid performance management which is more challenging to keep track of remotely. As businesses moved towards remote work, many of these companies offered their tools free amid the coronavirus in the hope that this would become a standard once the pandemic had eased.

Similarly, in higher education, many institutions had already begun implementing blended modules, which combined online learning with traditional classroom learning. Supervisors are communicating via platforms such as WhatsApp while our modules have been placed online through Blackboard, for instance. This shift to remote teaching and learning has not been without its challenges, given that many students struggle with access to devices and data.

While this has been addressed in the short term, there is a fundamental need to find long-term solutions once the pandemic is over. It is becoming increasingly clear that as universities shift to remote online teaching and learning, much of this will continue to be integrated into the curriculum where relevant.

As work and education move online, we are renewing our focus on 5G technology. We are entering an era where data is becoming as essential to us as many of our other basic needs — 5G is not merely a marketing tool for telecommunications companies to stay competitive. It is a telecommunications technology that is sufficiently localised to transmit information very fast.

Instead of having telecommunications towers located to serve many people, 5G hubs are located near users, such as on street poles to serve fewer users and thus facilitate the fast transmission of data. We are increasingly going mobile and consuming more data. I can bank, reply to emails and Google the latest news on 5G in a matter of seconds. In South Africa, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa announced a release of emergency broadband spectrum to fulfil a spike in internet demand during the national lockdown. Alongside this is a licensing process which is expected to be concluded by the end of 2020.

What is apparent is that the pandemic has placed urgency on industries and people to adopt many technologies of the 4IR. Of course, there needs to be a conversation on how we integrate all aspects of our society into this shift. While in many instances these technologies have had a positive impact, it has also been exclusionary. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that inequality in access is a challenge we must overcome to be successful in the 4IR. Our first lesson is how we adapt to a Covid-19 world. DM

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