SA's 4IR future 'depends on what we do now'

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Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, University of Johannesburg (Photo: Karolina Komendera, ITWeb Brainstorm)
Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, University of Johannesburg (Photo: Karolina Komendera, ITWeb Brainstorm)

The question of how society can strike a balance between the unemployment and upskilling workers on the one hand, and automation on the other, is often brought up in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) conversations. While the introduction of automation technologies will mean that some employees will become obsolete, there can be no avoiding this, according to the University of Johannesburg's vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.

Marwala was speaking during a recent IITPSA AI special interest group meeting.

“It’s not really a balancing act. South Africa need the mindset of capital formation and being competitive; we don’t talk enough about this and it’s what we need to get ahead,” he said.

“There are many economic activities we’re not even involved in, such as electronics. UJ used to make drones just 10 years ago; they stopped because you can now get them from China at a fraction of the cost.”

“We must be preoccupied with competition. Automating isn’t an option; it’s the only way for any serious economy.” 

‘It’s difficult to say no to the president’

Marwala wears many hats. One of his most notable appointments was that of deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The commission’s job was to develop the country’s 4IR blueprint. It wrapped up its work last year, one year after commencing. “The president said he was happy we finished our work with no drama. But oh, there were fights! I just knew how to manage them so that we could achieve our goal,” Marwala told ITWeb after the IITPSA session.

The commission's summary report and recommendations were published in October. Some of its eight recommendations include greater public/private sector collaboration in creating a national AI institute, investing in human capital, incentivising 4IR initiatives, investing in data security and forming special interest groups. 

On the special groups, Marwala says, “All our recommendations require special interest groups. The private sector can form them, led by experts, and then invite government to join. Things will move faster that way.”

Johan Steyn, Tony Parry and UJ’s Professor Tshilidzi Marwala took part in a recent IITPSA AI special interest group discussion.
Johan Steyn, Tony Parry and UJ’s Professor Tshilidzi Marwala took part in a recent IITPSA AI special interest group discussion.

When asked if he wouldn’t prefer to have the commission itself carry out its recommendations, he responds, “It’s difficult to say no to the president, but doing it ourselves wouldn’t be wise. In AI we have a concept called cross validation -- whatever data you used to build a model can never be used to test that model. Cross validation makes the final product a better one. They need others to see out the recommendations. This will bring in new ideas; they might even see our blind spots.”

A different kind of leader

In 2017, Marwala completed an advanced management programme at Columbia Business School. He recalls two musical outings they were taken on to draw leadership lessons from.

 “We went to a classical music concert and to a jazz club in Harlem and were told to observe both conductors. With classical music, you have to play exactly what Beethoven wrote but jazz has no script, it’s all improvisation. If someone makes a mistake, it’s covered up quickly so the harmony isn’t disturbed… Reality is not scripted. There’s no recipe.”

UJ offers a mandatory AI module for all its students, which it introduced three years ago.

“It was absolutely my idea,” he says proudly. The module covers what AI is, what it can do, how it's used and some of its implications, ethically and productively. The course is not part of students’ academic credits but they can’t graduate without it. Students are given up to a semester to complete it.

“So when you graduate, you leave with your qualification and this AI certificate. As far as I know, UJ’s the only one in the country that’s made it mandatory. The course won’t teach you how to code but it will show you how you can expect AI to impact your life.”

Referencing a recent Brainstorm interview, Marwala says he doesn’t know what the future will bring.

“There are exciting times ahead, (and) many questions we have no answers to. What will happen to our kids? I’m both optimistic and pessimistic about South Africa’s place in the 4IR. It depends on what we do now, the choices we make.”

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