Bongani Ngqulunga: What does the future hold for work?

The conversation about the Industry 4.0 should be about people. For it is clear that this AI-driven revolution, like the three industrial revolutions that preceded it, will benefit some while leaving others behind. In other words, it will produce societies of winners and losers, which makes it more than just a technological and innovation project. It is profoundly political.

Like many of my fellow residents in Gauteng and other metropolitan cities, I ride on Uber taxis quite regularly. One of the first things I do as soon as I settle in the car is to check out compliments that other riders have written about the driver, and I read them aloud to him/her. Over time, I have learned that there is nothing that brings a smile on each Uber driver’s face than a beautiful compliment. Remarkably, the drivers remember each person who wrote the compliment and tend to tell me the stories behind the compliments.

I read out the compliments primarily to break the ice and start a conversation. However, conversations about compliments often lead to interesting discussions about each driver’s background and how each ended up as an Uber taxi driver. Take, for instance, a young man from Cameroon who came to South Africa in search of a dream of becoming a soccer star, but abandoned it when it did not work out, and now drives an Uber taxi to support his upkeep in Johannesburg and pay for his studies in marketing. Or the Zimbabwean female driver, who regaled me with a rich tale about the politics and culture of Zimbabwe and hilarious stories about the former president of her country. Or Sibusiso from Soweto, who told me that he runs a catering business on the side and drives an Uber in order to support that business.

The interaction with Uber drivers and their universally positive reaction whenever complimentary comments are read out to them capture that kernel of what makes us human: the meaning and perspective that other human beings’ stories give to our own lives; the satisfaction that we derive when affirmed by others for the good work we have done; the leg-up that productive and decent employment give in pursuit of our dreams and those of our families.

Enriching as this experience is, there are clouds over the horizon for Uber drivers. Right now, Uber is experimenting with all sorts of innovations, including introducing driver-less cars. In fact, in the next few years Uber and other companies hope to bring to the market flying taxis, which will take riders to their destinations. These technological innovations are not only confined to Uber.

Wide areas of economic, social, health and other arenas of life are undergoing transformation brought about by Artificial Intelligence (AI). As Professor Tshilidzi Mawrala, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and South Africa’s foremost expert on AI, and his research collaborators have repeatedly demonstrated, AI is changing industries as different as health and the military.

These AI-driven innovations portend significant implications for how we work, interact with other human beings, and for how we relate with governments and corporations. Given these profound implications for humanity, the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS) has started a series of conversations with experts from various academic fields, with leaders in government, of major corporations, and from various sectors of civil society to try to understand the changes under way and to figure out their meaning for our society as a whole.

Over the past two months, JIAS has hosted four panel discussions on the implications of AI-driven technological change on the future of work. The panellists have included business leaders such as MD Ramesh, the president and regional head of Olam International and Yolisa Kani, Uber South Africa’s head of public policy, trade unionists such as and politicians such as Enoch Godongwana, the member of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress and chairperson of its Economic Transformation Committee. We have also had leading experts on the field of AI and the Fourth Industrial Revolution such as Tshilidzi Mawrala, and academics from the three major universities in Gauteng, University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand.

What has emerged from the conversations are four major themes. First, technological changes driven by artificial intelligence are already transforming the nature of work. Certain jobs that traditionally have been done by human beings are being taken over by machines and robots. Leading tech companies such as Google are inventing technologies that can set up appointments and reserve tables at restaurants and hair salons. Banking, as Marwala recently observed is fast changing, with serious implications for the workers who have traditionally worked at banks. As MD Ramesh reported, the new technologies are transforming agriculture in underdeveloped and developing countries in continents such as Africa, Latin America, with potentially fruitful results for small scale farmers.

Second, the discussion of AI driven change has to put people at the centre. Industry experts in sectors such as agriculture, banking and the finance, of course, know better because the constituency they serve is most affected by changes in the workplace brought about by technological advancements. For countries confronted by problems such as poverty, inequality and unemployment such as South Africa, the implications of the fourth industrial revolution are immediate and frankly dire, if not attended to urgently. The call by trade unions for a just and fair transition from the current work regime and to a future one in which artificially intelligent machines are likely to displace workers requires urgent attention.

What should be avoided is a conversation on AI and the Industry 4.0, as the fourth industrial revolution has become popularly known, that is driven by major corporations, experts and other elites and excludes the very people who are likely to carry the brunt of change.

Third, governments have to play a proactive role both in working with business, organised labour, universities and other key role players to ensure that societies maximise the benefits of AI and minimise risks and potential abuse. The example of interference by outside parties in the presidential election in the United States, for instance, only serves to confirm that these technologies can be used to achieve malevolent goals. The mining of private data of ordinary people by tech companies such as Facebook raises serious privacy and ethical concerns, which require urgent attention by regulators. But there is more that governments need to do other than regulating; they need to work with citizens to design education systems that respond to the skills demands of Industry 4.0.

Which brings me to the fourth and final point: what implications does the changing nature of work hold for university education? The last panel that JIAS convened focused on precisely this question. The dominant view is that universities are going to have to change what they teach and how they teach it if they are to stay relevant. The type of skills that the technological changes requires that the education that universities provide will have to be interdisciplinary. Students who study science and engineering will have to take courses from humanities and vice versa. And the quality of education also has to improve.

The fact of the matter is that any student who has access to the internet can take a course from leading scholars who teach at universities such as Harvard. Given these opportunities, why should students settle for less than what they can get sitting at home from leading scholars in their fields?

The conversation that JIAS has started on the future of work suggests that in the final analysis, the conversation about the Industry 4.0 should be about people. For it is clear that this AI-driven revolution, like the three industrial revolutions that preceded it, will benefit some while leaving others behind. In other words, it will produce societies of winners and losers, which makes it more than just a technological and innovation project. It is profoundly political. Cognisant of its impact on society, it is imperative that thought leadership institutes like JIAS should initiate and drive conversations around Industry 4.0 and society. DM

Dr Bongani Ngqulunga is the deputy director, Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.