The Fourth Industrial Revolution speaks Zulu


I have been writing science stories in Zulu lately. For a bit of fun, I used Google Translate to see how badly the platform would translate it, and I was pleasantly surprised by the intelligible result. Professionals in the South African translation industry are not as happy as I am about this result, and they are not the only ones.

The paranoid world, through the eyes of entertainment media, has come a long way since the days of the first Terminator film in 1984, which first gave voice to fears of a rise of the machines. These fears were very mechanical, imagining the chrome skeletons would liberate us of our lives and freedom through efficient violence.

While the menacing, chrome skulls still grace clickbait headlines about the dangers of artificial intelligence, the greatest fears today are much more personal as they affect our modern source of purpose and value: our world of work. I bore witness to this earlier this year, when language professionals shared their frustrations with the impending growth of AI, during the South African Translators' Institute triennial conference.

A few presenters told attendees that they need not be afraid as the disruption in the translation industry, as with others, will not be "autonomous"; it will not happen in a vacuum, but rather with us humans still in control. However, many 21st-century jobs have aspects to them that are repetitive or easy for a modern algorithm to learn and execute, which means we have to adapt to stay relevant lest we become obsolete.

There is no stopping the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), it seems, and the South African government is readying itself through the Department of Trade and Industry. An article on the departmental website explains the 4IR as something that will "bring experiences unknown to humankind."

The most important jobs today have evolved and grown in complexity from the first industrial revolution when the mechanical loom was invented in 1784. The looming Fourth Revolution looks to demand more complex work from fewer of us, suggesting that, just maybe, we really will live in a Jetsons future where we can pursue more creative endeavours like genetically grafting wings to swine.

According to the DTI's Industrial Policy Action Plan, the government anticipates that "job families" such as architecture and engineering, computer and mathematical careers, and even sales are currently growing, while office work and manufacturing are in decline. The 4IR might just be the spanner in the works that unpredictably disrupts this current trajectory.

A document by the DTI titled "Seismic change ahead" gives the comforting message that many jobs are threatened by redundancy while other jobs grow rapidly in unpredictable ways. The document further states that you might need some ICT skills to stay relevant and "unlock new opportunities".

Chief Executive of Standard Bank Sim Tshabalala is optimistic about job prospects in his piece titled "South Africa in the fourth industrial revolution: A new opportunity to create more jobs and a better society". In it he paints a reimagining of South Africa that can bring us into a "truly modern, prosperous, fair and decent society". He sees the country's strengths such as entrepreneurship and growing urbanisation, as things that can be exploited to see our prosperous society be a reality.

In a paper in the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development, Daniel le Roux writes that the current industrial revolution has brought with it an advancement in computing. Such computational advancement, he writes, also brings with it an increase in inequality in "previously egalitarian" economies, so I can only imagine what wonders it can do for South Africa.

It strikes me as a little disingenuous to be discussing the Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa, when it seems like the Third Revolution left many of our citizens quite literally in its dust.

As exciting as the notion of smarter machines may be, I realise that we are still not talking enough about the effects the 4IR will have on our already volatile economy. I suppose we have other things to worry about right now, a state of capture in our hearts and minds.

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