Navigating Covid-19 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Workers at Aria Diagnostics assemble Covid-19 tests. The company donated 50,000 kits to New York City. Photo by: AP Photo/Michael Conroy

In South Korea, a grey “smart” speaker more resembling a candle than any technology at first glance, is paying close attention to the search habits of senior citizens. The speaker has a built-in artificial intelligence (AI) system called Aria. A lamp at the top turns blue as it processes voice commands. Yet, it goes further than the likes of Amazon’s Alexa. From an office in Eastern Seoul, SK Telecom, the speaker looks for signs of loneliness and insecurity, before recommending a visit by public health officials. 

The concern is that accompanying the coronavirus is the pandemic of loneliness. With social distancing still enforced even as lockdowns ease, and with the elderly, particularly at risk of dying from Covid-19, it is understandable that steps have been taken to ease down the restrictions. There is even a view to remain relevant long after the pandemic eases. The devices can quiz their users to monitor the memory and cognitive functions, which would be potentially useful for advising treatments.

With countries forced into lockdown over the last few months, this is the brave new world we are entering. In many instances, it has proved to be successful. Track and trace of new infections have been exceedingly efficient through AI. Governments have been able to use data to monitor people who may have the coronavirus. Robots akin to the Roomba have sprayed disinfectant in public areas, and algorithms have used to differentiate between pneumonia, tuberculosis and the coronavirus in chest x-rays. Yet, there also lies quite a dark underbelly. Phindile Kunene, an educator at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education, rightly pointed out that, there are “big debates about the relationship between technology and human freedom”. 

The surveillance measures in response to the coronavirus could indeed become commonplace when the pandemic no longer poses a threat. The world we face now, with the scourge of an invisible threat, has hastened many shifts we would have seen as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) gains more traction. 

The 4IR will see intelligent technologies such as AI, automation, biotechnology, nanotechnology and communication technologies permeate every aspect of our lives. Like the previous industrial revolutions, the 4IR poised to change every facet of society from the way we interact, to how our industries operate to the way we consume. 

It is fundamentally a paradigm shift. 

Yet, what does this look like? The very notion of remote working is the 4IR in practice. At the University of Johannesburg, for instance, while we had already introduced a blended model, which opts for both contact and online learning, we have had to introduce completely remote teaching and learning programme. Our students have access to technology platforms such as Blackboard and uLink, which are valuable resources for both staff and students regarding teaching and learning remotely. Our academics have disseminated short videos, Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls and WhatsApp communication with our students, for instance. 

Of course, we have had to consider the unique circumstances of our students whose access to the internet depends on the availability of bandwidth, data affordability, fast networks and smart devices or computer availability. Many of these aspects will continue to be integrated into forms of teaching and learning when the lockdown completely lifts. Similarly, technologies are increasingly being deployed to stay in contact and to bolster our healthcare systems. 

The corona world has served as somewhat of a yardstick for our preparedness for the 4IR. It has revealed where we are able to adapt, but it has also revealed the pitfalls of the 4IR. For one, privacy concerns are extremely valid. As Phindile Kunene put it, “We should wonder if drone technology will not be repurposed to monitor and quash movements of shack dwellers, backyarders and occupiers like Abahlali baseMjondolo and Reclaim the City.” She goes on to say, “Far from being ‘pessimistic’ about technology, many activists are exploring visions of change premised on how digital technologies can serve us without robbing us of our freedoms.” 

This, of course, needs to be encompassed by what much of the 4IR Presidential Commission is recommending in the way of re-looking and implementing legislation. Our landscape is vastly different from China’s or South Korea’s, for instance, primarily based on our political system and government. Yet, in many cases, this also needs to be subverted. In the instance of the controversial SK Telecom speaker, do the benefits outweigh the risks? It also has the potential to exacerbate many of our existing challenges, particularly around inequality and disparity. However, it is significant to observe that regardless of how we respond, the 4IR will permeate our lives. 

The challenge, of course, is to harness it positively. In Life 3.0, Max Tegmark writes, “Technology is giving life the potential to flourish like never before – or to self-destruct.” Then, of course, is the worry of the jobs it will displace. In a global economy and the local economy, I might add that it has been battered by the impact of the coronavirus, and consequently, unemployment is rising exponentially. Businesses are looking to technology as a solution, and in a natural progression of cost-cutting and automation, many people are being replaced. These are changes we anticipated and feared with the advent of the 4IR. There are no simple band-aids for this. 

As many would tell you, and as the World Economic Forum (WEF) has said, adapting to a new world of work requires up-skilling and re-skilling. While new jobs are expected to emerge, and roles will be revised, there is a significant portion of the population who are not encompassed by this. One of the goals of the 4IR has to be the inclusion of this population into the workforce. Though one solution is the emphasis on education, as unemployment creeps up and inequality widens with the lockdowns, there has to be a view to find sustainable alternatives. Reframing our education system to encompass more online learning leads to the inclusion of more students that we simply do not have the capacity in our campuses. There is debate around this that still must rage on.

We have been plunged further and faster into the 4IR than we would have been without the coronavirus pandemic. After all, social distancing, or physical distancing, has necessitated that we permeate our lives with technologies. Now that we are here, now that many have acknowledged that we have taken the leap into another industrial revolution and now that we are testing what works for us and what does not, we must interrogate how to best respond in a way that does not exacerbate the myriad challenges but instead subverts them. As Andrew Ng, the co-founder of Google Brain, said, “Much has been written about AI’s potential to reflect both the best and the worst of humanity. For example, we have seen AI providing conversation and comfort to the lonely; we have also seen AI engaging in racial discrimination. Yet the biggest harm that AI is likely to do to individuals in the short term is job displacement, as the amount of work we can automate with AI is vastly larger than before. As leaders, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure we are building a world in which every individual has an opportunity to thrive.”

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.