The fourth industrial revolution is not only a digital disruption of all industries but also a wave of technological innovation to better the way humans interface with technology 

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has become a buzz word that is often thrown about and rarely explained. Some understand it as the description of the  wave of technological innovation and some understand it as a technological disruption.  

The term “fourth industrial revolution” was coined by founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab. Schwab described 4IR as a revolution characterised by a combination of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. It is the current and developing environment in which disruptive technologies and trends such as artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality are at the forefront.  

According to Schwab, the 4IR unlike other revolutions will bring technological innovation and transformation in almost every aspect of life. There will be technological transformations in medicine and healthcare, financial services sectors, in engineering and education to name but a few. 

Professor Ian Jandrell, dean of the Wits faculty of engineering and the built environment, said that 4IR is a huge technological advancement needed by South Africa.

“Its fascinating how everything will change with 4IR, the possibilities are endless. We often only think about the ‘little’ guys losing their jobs but the ‘big’ guys will also be affected.

“If you take the healthcare sector as a case study, machines to better diagnose patients are being developed to minimise cases of misdiagnosis by doctors. Now people are starting to realise that it is not only the brick-layer who has to fear for his job but top surgeons as well,” Jandrell said.  

According to Jandrell , every sphere of life can be affected by the digital revolution, even the legal fraternity has room for innovation. 

“People are subjective, that we cannot run away from,  so picture technology that checks precedent against the law and prescribes judgement without human bias – that is what 4IR is about. It aims to better the lives of people through technology,” he told Wits Vuvuzela 

Jandrell also added that Africa is a breeding ground for innovation due to its lack of infrastructure.  This means that new, improved and future-focused technology can be adopted. “Creative hubs like Tshimologong are necessary and are too few for the potential harboured by South Africans when it comes to technology and innovation.”

Wits professor Brian Armstrong describes 4IR as technological disruption and is the advent of machines doing cognitive tasks verging on creative tasks.

“The fourth industrial revolution is changing the way we interface between people and the technical world. It literally blurs the lines and that is why people are afraid of it. 

“It [4IR] shifts reality. Think of how our houses can now be fitted with artificial intelligence such as Alexa or Siri. You can preheat an oven at work on your smartphone so that when you get home you just cook your food. This is the direction we are heading towards,” said the secretary of the 4IRSA partnership at the 4IRSA global economy summit.  

From self-driving vehicles to advancements in medicine and advancements in fields of reporting with introductions such as data journalism, the new era will also bring technical and ethical challenges to how societies function. 

Lecturer at the School of Construction Economics and Management, Josephine Llale, says that jobs will not necessarily be lost due to 4IR but they will take a different form.

“Work that can be done more efficiently by machinery will be taken over but new jobs such as urban ecologist, living systems designer,  medical equipment designer, online doctor, medical robot operator and more,” she said. 

Llale also told Wits Vuvuzela that jobs that will most likely be replaced in future are commercial pilots by 55%, healthcare practitioners by 40% and accountants and auditors by 92%, among others. 

“Accountants and retail people are more at risk because work that requires adding up numbers in columns is usually easily automated. Hence banking jobs, cashiers, quantity surveyors are often cited as at most risk,” she said.  

Second year BSc student, Nontuthuko Nyembezi, said she sees “ it [4IR] as an upgrade in technology and the efficiency in the way things are done. This is especially helpful in the schooling environment and the way we learn is now more visual, virtual and interactive.”   

“Because the nature of work is changing, the teaching curriculum needs to change too. Universities are preparing students for a future that does not yet exist or put in another words, for jobs that do not currently exist. It is imperative that universities start embracing the 4IR,” Llale told Wits Vuvuzela

FEATURED IMAGE: Communications minister, Stella Ndabeni Abrahams, speaks at the 4IRSA Digital Economy Summit. Photo: Anathi Madubela