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4IR can help solve myriad problems, not least of which is our water woes

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, a member of the Namibia 4IR task Force and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated our shift to the adoption of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. They have the potential to facilitate development and transform health, waste management, water and sanitation, and agriculture on the African continent.

One of the problems that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted in South Africa is the water crisis when the government could not supply this vital resource to needy communities and schools. The water scarcity is not by any means a new story; it is an enduring problem with sobering statistics that threaten the livelihood of people and wildlife in many countries.

As I pondered this crisis, caused by years of drought and self-inflicted factors such as poor governance and management, my mind drifted to how technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) could be used to solve the problem.

But first, it is worth noting that a cursory glance at the news recently presents two vastly different views on the technologies of 4IR. On the one hand are the significant possibilities that these technologies bring across various sectors, from science to engineering and so forth. Last week, for instance, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology announced that it was using machine learning to grow artificial organs. Using algorithms, machines can replicate tissues in a cell more accurately than humans can. This could be effective in studying the development of tissues found in the brain, the ear or the pancreas, for instance. The possibilities provided by 4IR are so vast that many of them remain untapped.

This brings us to the other side of the coin, which is that many fears around 4IR technologies are also being realised. An investigation by the Daily Beast, for example, found that artificial intelligence (AI) has been used to generate fake journalists who have been placing opinion pieces about the Middle East on conservative news sites such as Newsmax and Washington Examiner.

In an article for Forbes, Neil Sahota best summed it up. He compared these technologies to the Jedi mind trick, which is used to subconsciously influence a person, made famous in the Star Wars series. As he put it: “The Jedi mind trick only works on the weak-minded, so it is in all of our interests to keep watch and help each other from succumbing to subconscious influence through these tools.”

Despite these vastly different outcomes of 4IR technologies, we must not be distracted, and we must first acknowledge that 4IR is here and already permeating our lives, whether we are ready for it or not. As Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairperson of the World Economic Forum puts it: “The extent to which that transformation is positive will depend on how we navigate the risks and opportunities that arise along the way.”

It is now common cause that 4IR is inevitable and is changing all aspects of our lives. It is the confluence of people and technology, which has inextricably linked the physical, digital and biological worlds. It encompasses the entire wave of disruptive technologies ranging from 5G networks, autonomous vehicles, AI, machine learning, 3D printing and the internet of things (IoT), for instance. These technologies are deeply changing the way we work, commute, communicate and even shop.

As we talk of solutions to our water and sanitation woes, these technologies have the potential to facilitate development and transform health, waste management, water and sanitation, and agriculture on the continent. This, of course, requires infrastructure.

As we continue to wage a battle against a new threat – the Covid-19 pandemic – it has become clear that the shift to 4IR we have been anticipating and making a slow transition to, is in fact here. The last few months have been an important indicator of just how well placed we are for this transition. Almost as if we have been placed into a simulation to gauge our preparedness for 4IR, we are now able to identify where these technologies will augment our lives and where we need to adapt.

As we talk of solutions to our water and sanitation woes, these technologies have the potential to facilitate development and transform health, waste management, water and sanitation, and agriculture on the continent. This, of course, requires infrastructure. This is one of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, of which I am deputy chair. The infrastructure we envision is software-based, data-enabled and has cloud access. Digital infrastructure is set to improve access to information and, thereby, promote transparency of government processes and activities, and in turn, build interconnected empowered communities.

South Africa faces vast service delivery challenges which 4IR can help to ease. For instance, we need to look at the generation and delivery of energy, the extension and improvement of water infrastructure, and health as well as the educational infrastructure to create a coherent and comprehensive infrastructure network. Of course, this requires the government to develop a comprehensive set of infrastructure priorities for the country with achievable timelines.

In 2012, the government adopted the National Infrastructure Plan as a job creator and to strengthen the delivery of basic services. AI, for instance, can help improve urban planning by optimising routes for transport operators, reducing commuters’ journey times – a particularly significant move in a country that still battles with apartheid spatial planning, leaving a bulk of the population far away from the central economic hubs. Machine learning provides myriad solutions in this instance, from predictive analysis to manage our water supply networks to data analysis to track water consumption and water end-users, to the management of sewage treatment plants or desalination plants.

Using algorithms, machines can replicate tissues in a cell more accurately than humans can. This could be effective in studying the development of tissues found in the brain, the ear or the pancreas, for instance. The possibilities provided by 4IR are so vast that many of them remain untapped.

If we use these technologies intelligently when we are servicing remote parts of the country and densely populated areas, for example, we could subvert the conversation around service delivery, which is often perceived as hopeless and tainted in South Africa. 

AI could be used to predict which services such as water and sanitation have a shortfall. For example, if this had been implemented ahead of the pandemic, we could identify which schools do not have access to water instead of the current inefficient manual audits. Much of this technology could have been deployed as solutions for the logistical nightmare of screening, testing, reaching the vulnerable and distribution of food parcels.

In Finland, an IoT company called Uros has developed systems to improve operations and functionalities in municipal water management. Similarly, in India, which faces similar challenges in rural areas, an IoT company, GARV Toilets, has designed portable public toilets made of recycled metal and integrated with solar panels, battery packs, auto flush, floor cleaning technology and bio-digester tanks. If we consider that in just one instance, there is R3.4-billion allocated by National Treasury for the next three years to eradicate pit latrines at schools, there is scope for these kinds of solutions.

It has been argued that 4IR could be the solution to some of our most deep-seated problems. Of course, the caveat is that the infrastructure, right stakeholders, political support and skills need to be in place in order to achieve this.

After all, as Schwab said: “Take dramatic technological change as an invitation to reflect on who we are and how we see the world. The more we think about how to harness the technology revolution, the more we will examine ourselves and the underlying social models that these technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution in a manner that improves the state of the world.” DM

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