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Fourth industrial revolution requires more fitting definition

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Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering.
Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering.

The notion of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) should be seen as an ‘evolution’ of digital transformation rather than a ‘revolution’, says professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University.

Dwolatzky was speaking at yesterday’s virtual mining roundtable hosted by Huawei and the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. The event explored the role of 4IR and digital transformation in the mining sector, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The JCSE director said that in the last couple of years, people have been bombarded with the 4IR phrase, but there’s no consensus on how to define it.

The two ways that people tend to define 4IR is first by listing a whole lot of technologies, namely machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and virtual reality, he stated.

The second is to say the first industrial revolution was this, the second was that and the third is this and now we are in the fourth. However, he stressed that the definition that tries to look at lines in history is quite hard to deal with.

“I tend to not like this idea of ‘fourth industrial revolution’ because I tend to see the world more as an evolving digital transformation, where things build up on the previous generation of technology.

“There are very few times that we’d leap into a revolutionary transformation. We should be careful not to constantly see any changes as revolutionary because a lot of it is evolutionary. The skills that we therefore need are not new skills in many cases, but we build on our legacy skills.”

Dwolatzky prefers to define 4IR based on the four design principles that came out of the Industry 4.0 movement that was popularised about 10 years ago in Germany.

“The four things that make up the fourth industrial revolution are interconnectivity, decentralised decision-making, information transparency and digital assistance. Those are the four design principles that define this 4IR notion.”

Despite using the term in almost every public pronouncement, some local government leaders have been stumped when attempting to define the fourth industrial revolution. Last year, deputy president David Mabuza couldn’t provide a clear explanation of past revolutions and how the advent of 4IR will impact SA.

Since taking office in 2018, president Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration have dedicated attention to all things fourth industrial revolution.

Ramaphosa even spearheaded the establishment of the Presidential 4IR Commission, which is mandated to advise government on 4IR policies and develop a framework for implementation of a multi-sectoral 4IR strategy.

Digital adoption

Turning to mining, Dwolatzky said in the South African context, deep-level mining characterises many of the country’s gold mines, which throws up many problems in adopting digital and other technologies.

“Our mining has been very labour-intensive, and our mines are designed to deal with labour-intensive mining. To put big robots underground and get them to do the work of people is almost impossible in terms of how mines are designed.”

Dwolatzky highlighted that one of the things that characterises mining, especially in SA, is that miners and workers in the mining industry, in many cases, work ‘blind’. “We might have great seismic models that we could run to warn of a rock burst, but we infrequently provide that information at the workplace.

“One of the challenges in digital transformation is to bring information to the workplace where it can be used to improve safety and productivity. One of our big problems in mining is when mines close and how can digital transformation help to support that aspect.”

He noted skills in the digital world are set up like a huge pyramid, with the peak of the pyramid made up of the experts and people doing the advanced work.

“In the mining sector, the peak skills are the same as those in many other sectors. We have to have data scientists, AI, people, internet of things and people in security, to name a few. There’s nothing particularly special about mining in terms of those peak-level skills.

“For skills lower down the pyramid, our challenge is to change the technology to fit the skill profiles of the users. We shouldn’t need to train every miner to use some technology that is not well-suited to their skills. We should rather change the technology to fit the skills we have, and that is one of the big challenges.”

Dwolatzky, however, is confident the mining industry as whole is one where huge benefits can be realised if it embraces digital.

Digital transformation needs to be viewed as part of doing business, and needs to be done logically. “People tend to get very hooked on technology, but technology is not the problem – it’s how we do business in a digital world.

“We are in the 21st century and it is going to be dominated by digital transformation and technologies, and if we don’t go with the flow, we won’t exist. You can’t say we are not going digital because in a very short time, you won’t exist in the world because the world is going digital.

“The smart mining companies are embracing it [digital transformation] enthusiastically, and I think they will be the ones that are going to really dominate in the coming century. The people who lag behind and resist will probably not exist any longer,” he concluded.

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