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The Fourth Industrial Revolution: More opportunities than threats

A computer programmed to play poker and learning by itself how to bluff; an algorithm that predicts whether two countries will ever go to war; machines that detect epilepsy with almost flawless accuracy these are some of the groundbreaking abilities brought about by technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Addressing the first UFS public event to enhance 4IR awareness, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, briefed staff, interested parties and members of the media about recent 4IR developments and their implications.

Prof Marwala is currently a thought leader on the impact of the 4IR on higher education in South Africa as well as the Deputy Chairperson of the national commission appointed by the president to formulate 4IR strategies for South Africa.

Industrial revolution history

He recapped how, during the first industrial revolution, people started to understand how nature worked, ultimately leading to the development of the steam engine.

The second industrial revolution was marked by the development of electromagnetism which led to electrification and mass production, while the third produced computerisation and a rise in digital technology.

The fourth industrial revolution is characterised by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between cyber, physical and biological systems. This has led to rapid advances in fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 3D printing.

Artificial intelligence

Prof Marwala pointed out that, although fears were rife of machines taking over people's jobs, the flipside of the coin was that dangerous jobs such as fire rescue operations could be carried out by machines without endangering lives.

Artificial intelligence can be employed to prevent bridge and building collapses by monitoring the condition of structures. It can also be used in credit scoring, where machines search for and analyse all the available data on a credit applicant, without having to rely only on the (sometimes fraudulent) information supplied by the credit seeker.

He emphasised the great need to develop algorithms applicable to our continent, such as translating software that makes provision for the clicks in languages like isiXhosa, and facial recognition software that incorporates data collected in African countries.

Is Africa ready?

Responding to a question from an audience member, Prof Marwala indicated that Africa was certainly not ready for the 4IR when it came to the content of teaching curricula and infrastructure.

As universities, we should not sit back and wait for change. We have the responsibility to lead our societies to have the same experiences as elsewhere in the world, he concluded.

Source: University of the Free State

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