On Wednesday March 14, Africa Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), a think tank based in Ghana was in Nairobi with a simple mission. To “undertake a study to better understand what the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) means for the future of jobs and especially youth employment in Africa.” The study is on behalf of Africa Development Bank (AfDB).
The key areas of focus in 4IR include machine learning/artificial intelligence/robotics. Machines can now do jobs that were previously the domain of human beings. Machines can learn and adopt. Think of computers that can play games or driver-less cars than keep tabs on the road conditions including traffic jams.
The second area is Internet of Things (IoT). Devices from our fridges to other gadgets we use every day are connected to the net. This allows unprecedented controls and communications whose social economic effects are yet to be fully understood. Think of picking items in a supermarket, without going through the cashier, money is debited directly from your bank account or M-Pesa.
Third is data mining technologies/data science. ACET notes that “The capture of vast amounts of data, when combined with powerful computing capabilities and AI algorithms, generate unprecedented amounts of insights.” Statistics is enjoying a renaissance. The patterns and trends within data are business opportunities. Think of airlines booking systems, hotels reservations, and even tax returns or customer information in banks.
Fourth is 3D printing. Just design a product and print it. From prosthetics to artificial teeth. Going directly from designing to physical product, promises the revival of cottage industry and could help developing countries avoid the smoke stacks. What will happen to the factories, some that have stood for hundreds of years? As Vimal Shah once joked, we could in future start printing pizzas.
The fifth area is Blockchain or trust technologies. ACET notes, “...Blockchain is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.”
What will happen to lawyers, bankers, brokerage firms and lots of government officials? No wonder Blockchains are seen as the silver bullet against corruption. Blockchains will be the deathblow to power as we know it. Once in place, lots of power wielders and brokers in both private and public sector will lose their power. No stamps, no signatures, no come tomorrow.
The fifth area, which ACET left out, is the convergence of physical and biological systems. Do you call artificial hand that could be controlled by the brains just like the normal hand? Imagine such a robot? One hot area for those in school to think about is biophysics or bioengineering. We are accepting a simple fact, nature is far better than us, we better learn from it.
Now that we know what entails the 4IR, how shall Africa, a continent where joblessness is a huge problem, particularly among the youth react to the new reality? There three possible scenarios.
One, Africa can watch as the rest of the world moves on. We did that with the first three industrial revolutions. The first was based on mechanisation of textile mills and steam engine, the second on mass productions pioneered by Henry Ford and the third was on digitization of manufacturing. We are yet to come to terms with earlier revolutions.
The basics of an engine have remained the same, but we still can’t make cars. We prefer to show off our new cars oblivious of the jobs we could create if we made cars here. No wonder Obama made sure General Motors was saved after he became the president.
Two, we can do what we did in telecommunications, leapfrog. Most Kenyans never had fixed telephones in their house. We got directly into mobile phones which we have exploited better than western countries that came up with the mobile phone. Think of M-Pesa and other services uniquely Kenyans that we get through our phones.
The nature of social economic set up makes it easier to adopt the 4IR. Since we do not like learning, we can let machines do it for us. Blockchains can slay our most popular dragon, corruption. 3D would make our homes new industrial centres, with the biggest bottleneck being the design. All the data lying within the Government and private sector, including churches could be mined for patterns and trends. May be we could eventually explain why we behave the way we do.
Three, we can move up the value chain so that we can become the providers of these technologies to the rest of the world. Japan did that with cars while India did the same with pharmaceuticals and software. Why can’t Kenya become the leader in artificial intelligence? We only need our brains, unlike steel mills.
One big question is whether we are prepared for 4IR. The ACET study across a number of Africa countries will give insights into that. Are our schools ready for 4IR? I used to wonder why my maths, physics and chemistry teachers in high school were Indians. By focusing on sciences, India prepared itself to become the pharmacy of the world and centre for software development. What of us?
Must be careful
To what extent has our envisaged new education system set to replace 8.4.4 espoused the 4IR? To what extent has Uhuru Big 4 Agenda embraced 4IR? Are we ready for the socio-psychological disruption from 4IR?
The rain can fall and political titans shake hands, but we must be careful not to lose the 4IR now underway. We can be even smarter, start the 5IR and reap all the benefits like other pioneers.
—The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.