A Conversation with Prof Tshilidzi Marwala; Vice Chancellor, University of Johannesburg: Part 3

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Part 3

LM: 

What is artificial intelligence, how does it currently impact our lives, and how will it change life as we know it in the future? 

TM: 

A machine is considered to be intelligent if it can analyse information and extract insights beyond the obvious. While computers traditionally relied on people to tell them what to do and how to react, AI is based on machines that are able to learn and make their own decision. Many people are impervious to how AI has already impacted our lives. For example, Netflix, uses AI to make suggestions on what to watch next based on your viewing patterns. Similarly, personal assistants such as Siri or Alexa are able to recognize your speech or in other words, understand what you want or need, analyze the information they have access to, and provide an answer or solution.

LM: 

In what way do you think the Coronavirus pandemic will accelerate society’s understanding of the 4IR and its potential to change our world? 

TM: 

The 4IR is based not on a single technology, but on the confluence of multiple developments and technologies. It is already changing how we live, work, and communicate and by virtue is reshaping government, education, healthcare, and commerce. We have witnessed this in multiple forms in recent weeks. From algorithms that detect the virus in chest x-rays to 3D printing masks to the entire notion of working from home, the fundamental shift we are seeing has brought the conversation around the 4IR to the fore.

LM: 

Do you think that the Coronavirus pandemic has revealed some deep structural inequalities in our societies, will the new advance technologies address or exacerbate these inequalities? 

TM: 

I’d argue that it could be the key to finding solutions to some of our most deep-seated problems. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that it has the potential to exacerbate poverty and inequalities. However, if we are to heed its call, we may be able to subvert this. Inequities and inequalities of societies can be overcome by levelling the playing field to ensure that technology inequality does not become a new exclusionary barrier. We cannot cower from the 4IR in fear of the possibility that it will widen our disparities. Instead, we need to be prepared for the shift so that we are able to deploy technology in a way that is beneficial to all facets of society.

LM: 

Does the public and private sectors, across the African continent, truly appreciate the power of Big Data, and how central it will be to our future strategies? 

TM: 

A report released by the Brookings Institution last month on Africa’s trajectory for the next decade indicated that the continent was behind in the 4IR. This is particularly concerning when you consider that Africa has lagged behind in the three previous industrial revolutions. According to the report, the majority of African firms reported moderate to very low levels of business preparedness for key 4IR technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing and the internet of things (IoT), among others.

LM: 

Technology has always displaced jobs- this is likely to happen at a greater speed, affecting more people going forward. Do we fully appreciate how the world of work, as we now know it, will be changed by the 4IR, are we preparing our children for that future? 

TM: 

Reports have suggested that while the 4IR will create massive job losses, making some careers obsolete, it will also pave the way for new jobs especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), data analysis, computer science, engineering and the social sciences. According to the global consultancy McKinsey & Company, you will need to excel at social and emotional, technological, and higher cognitive skills. While it is still unclear how the changes in pattern recognition or automation will impact every job, it is safe to say that they will all have a technological component. 

LM: 

Have we thought enough about the ethics and overall social impact of advanced technologies? Is there enough thinking about this among our policy makers? 

TM: 

While there are worst case scenarios that these technologies can be programmed to do something devastating through the creation of weapons or that destructive methods of performing simple tasks are developed, there are already huge misuses of the 4IR technology. If you look at some of the biggest companies in these spaces, they have a set of rules and ethical considerations set out which aligns these technologies with existing human values. Of course, this also means that these technologies lend themselves to bias, a lack of accountability and transparency and there isn’t one set of human values for it to adopt. While there is an agreement that transparency, justice and fairness, nonmaleficence, responsibility, and privacy are the core ethical principles, the meaning of these principles differs, particularly across countries and cultures which needs to be taken into consideration.

LM: 

President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed you as deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, what is the role of this commission and what lessons are there for other countries on the continent ? 

TM: 

We were tasked with assisting government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution – a matter of great urgency when we consider the strides already made by other countries. These kinds of recommendations are not only applicable in a national agenda but can be pursued by the entire continent. As a continent, Africa is already united through structures like the AU. We should now focus on uniting to contend with the 4IR in order for us to take strides into the future that will improve our socioeconomic conditions.

LM: 

You have argued that the advent of the 4IR require that policy makers move with great speed to make huge decisions about the future, what are some of those key decisions that they need to make ? 

TM: 

The Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution has put together a set of eight recommendations to tap into the benefits of the 4IR. Among the recommendations are to invest in human capital, establish an AI Institute, establish a platform for advanced manufacturing and new materials, secure and avail data to enable innovation, incentivise future industries, platforms and applications of 4IR technologies, build 4IR infrastructure, review and amend or create policy and legislation and establish a 4IR Strategy Implementation Coordination Council in the Presidency.

LM: 

The Chinese have advanced quite a lot in robotics, cyber space, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and augmented reality – how could other countries make similar investments into their country’s digital foundations? 

TM: 

China has had a competitive advantage because the country’s last few leaders have been engineers. Because people who understand technology have ruled China, they do not have to be convinced to invest in technology. This requires a digital blueprint. China has by far the most ambitious of the lot. South Africa, for instance, has a long way to go to play catch up. Where China has already looked at the provision of legal frameworks, resources and goals coupled with local freedom to adapt, we’ve just begun the process of strategizing.

LM: 

What message would you like to give to a budding young student talent at a high school in rural South Africa; or in a village in Nigeria; a slum in Kenya or a small school in Ethiopia? What would it take for them to reach their goals, in spite of their current circumstances? 

TM: 

I come from the village of Duthuni in Venda and have studied at the University of Cambridge. This in indicative of how far one can go to pursue a dream. Striving for excellence must become the passion for every young person, knowing that every challenge can be overcome through hard work and determination.

LM: 

Prof, I could engage you all day, I hope to continue these engagements with you, I know my audience will enjoy this and you will continue to inspire them on their journeys. 

TM: 

Thank you for your kind words. I wish you and your audience good deliberation and best wishes during this trying period.