From the editor's desk: 4IR requires people, too

EMP 2020 Electronics Manufacturing & Production Handbook News

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a manifesto was put forth entitled ‘The Universal Purpose of a Company in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. To be honest, it reads pretty much like something written on the back of a napkin after a long day of meetings and a few cocktails, but it is indicative of the fact that companies will need to learn to think differently in this new era, not only about how they do business, but how they treat and engage the minds and abilities of their employees.

A couple of the snippets that I do feel worth sharing from said manifesto are that “[A company] keeps the digital ecosystem in which it operates reliable and trustworthy. It makes customers fully aware of the functionality of its products and services, including adverse implications or negative externalities.” The other is “A company treats its people with dignity and respect. It honours diversity and strives for continuous improvements in working conditions and employee wellbeing. In a world of rapid change, a company fosters continued employability through ongoing upskilling and reskilling.”

It has been estimated that within just the next couple of years, 75 million jobs might be displaced across 20 major economies, while 133 million new ones will spring up in industries that are only just beginning to gain traction. What’s more, most of the kids who started school since 2016 will work in jobs that don’t even exist yet, and people’s working life in the future will be a lot more malleable, taking advantage of individuals’ unique sets of abilities and interests as they grow and change.

One of the major enablers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is set to be artificial intelligence (AI). AI, which is becoming ever more intertwined with the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT), has the potential to revolutionise many aspects of manufacturing, by vastly improving capabilities in the areas of computer vision, generative design, digital twinning, predictive maintenance, and others.

People much smarter than myself are saying all this will spur a sort of utopian future in which humans are freed from mundane tasks in order to do more exciting, high-level work. That may be the case in the long run, but even if it creates twice as many jobs over the next decade, the fact of the matter is we’re sitting with an unemployment crisis in South Africa right now. Millions of people in this country currently don’t have access to the knowledge, the technology, or the means to be able to tap into all this AI and IoT mumbo jumbo, and sadly many of them are going to be left behind as the 4IR gathers pace.

Added to that, our workforce is so heavily unionised that any efforts to automate manufacturing at the loss of jobs are greeted with great resistance – sometimes violently so. Which is understandable, when an individual weighs the cost of losing their job now versus a future that might, possibly, promise a better job for their children or grandchildren.

Unfortunately, I suspect most of the people who stand to lose the most from the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the short term don’t realise that it’s not their employers at fault, but government’s poorly thought out, ineptly executed, and oftentimes non-existent strategies that are to blame.

There is no stopping progress, but for the foreseeable future, we might just have to put the 4IR on the backburner a bit, and do what South Africans do best: roll up our sleeves, apply a bit of elbow grease, and ‘maak ‘n plan.’

Brett van den Bosch



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