Change is here, but is the world ready for the fourth industrial revolution

The forceful combination of disruptive technology and cognitive computing means the world is on the cusp of rapid change that will transform the way we work, how we live in cities, our healthcare and education systems and almost every possible element of our lives.

“Technology is happening at an exponential rate. It is difficult for the human mind to grasp just how quickly the change is progressing,” Solomon Assefa, director of IBM Research for Africa told a recent Gordon Institute of Business Science forum.

The emergence of the fourth industrial revolution, a concept that includes integrated economies, mechanisation and automation and builds on the digital revolution of the last century, was put forward at the 2016 World Economic Forum gathering at Davos earlier this year. The movement is characterised by an availability of technologies, including the Internet of Things, robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing that is revolutionising industries across the globe.

Technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence have the potential to augment human intelligence, Assefa said, as humans and machines work together.

“Massive amounts of data are generated online on a daily basis. Cognitive computing is able to process and make sense of this unstructured information which is extremely difficult to analyse,” Assefa said.

He added that powerful cognitive technology could assist humans to make better decisions and be more productive with potential applications for the healthcare, education, financial services and oil and gas sectors.

Looking beyond commercial returns, cognitive computing also has the potential to tackle grand challenges such as affordable healthcare, provision of infrastructure and agribusiness.

However, Bani Kgosana of the Britehouse Group warned that the threat of mass unemployment posed by artificial intelligence “is very real.” Unemployment would potentially need to be redefined, with the rise of the “on demand” economy a growing prospect, where skills are sourced and utilised based on time, capacity and knowledge, irrespective of location.

The avalanche of data and digital mastery

Kgosana told the forum there was an impending avalanche of data that businesses would need to interpret, as 500 billion pieces of equipment become connected online through the Internet of Things.

“Organisations have to think how they will shift their mindset to accommodate all this data and take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technology,” he said.

While most organisations want to be considered digital masters, this would take a great deal of internal alignment to achieve, Kgosana said. Digital mastery could potentially make organisations more profitable and efficient at generating revenue.

Digital mastery is being applied across industries, such as banking, insurance, travel and telecommunications to varying degrees of success, but is more than just portals and mobile apps. Kgosana said organisations would need an entire back office of capabilities to fulfil requirements and meet customer needs; and have flexible business models and a culture that is open to change.

“Technology comes with a huge responsibility. The amount of data companies have on clients is incredible and must be used wisely and respectfully,” he added.

Disruptive technology

Multinationals need to understand how easy it is to be disrupted, Assefa said. Organisations’ best form of defence against disruption was engagement to create an open platform for collaboration.

New technology such as 3D printing, which decentralises production, could threaten the traditional manufacturing industry to an extent, but would more likely change and create new categories of products, managing director of Rapid 3D David Bullock said.

Will Africa participate in the revolution?

Challenges to the African continent’s involvement in the fourth industrial revolution include infrastructure constraints such as access to electricity and broadband and a lack of education, Assefa said.

“Almost no research and development funding means the continent is always playing catch up and never leapfrogging,” he said.

Stephen Narsoo of Kite, a creative digital technology lab, said disruptive technologies had the potential to help solve real problems around poverty and inequality found in growing African cities. “Cities generate innovation, but also complexity. Technology provides us with a way to get out of the sticky mess.”

Narsoo said long-term thinking was needed to develop a future vision for the African city.

Fundamentally rethinking the education system was necessary to build a competent base of knowledge workers. “It’s not just about access to education but also what is being taught,” he concluded.