As AI gains traction in Africa and the rest of the world, concerns loom over the future of jobs in numerous industries. Can we offset these risks, and is it worth it to even try?
The rise of the robot, widely considered the next industrial revolution, is a global talking point with the fate of Africa forming a large question mark.
Some take the pessimistic view that Africa will be left behind by the technological revolution. Others believe that necessity is the mother of invention, and as such, Africa is an innovation hub. There are plenty of news reports coming out of the continent every day to support the latter point of view. Not to mention a Nigerian student recently built a fully functional AI robot!
Of course the rise of technology in general and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular is a global phenomenon, with business leaders the world over discussing how to manage its development fairly. Universal Basic Income, or UBI, is one possibility on the table to offset the increase in "digital refugees".
The ethics of how to safeguard human beings as we welcome a race of robots raise some interesting questions. According to research by the World Economic Forum, the development of AI will eliminate more jobs than it will create (seven million lost to two million gained). The Economist reported that some 47% of American jobs were at risk of automation in the future.
And yet, argues the same report, "[I]n the past technology has always ended up creating more jobs than it destroys. That is because of the way automation works in practice, explains David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Automating a particular task, so that it can be done more quickly or cheaply, increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated."
The likelihood of automation lies not in whether the work is manual or white-collar, the explanation continues, but whether or not it is routine. Much like the case of the textile factories in Britain, work that is repetitive can far more easily be automated. Moreover, as the saying goes, we do not yet know what our children's jobs will look like. We are preparing them to work in a landscape we cannot even imagine yet.
Nonetheless, in the short term, there likely is a risk for workers trained to work in the here and now. South Africa, for example, has already faced complaints of technology-driven job losses in the ICT sector.
But automation isn't always bad news. There's another aspect to this debate that was raised at Davos with the introduction of DRC Hubo, the latest humanoid robot that not only can keep up with humans, but has capabilities we do not. It can open doors, drive vehicles, but also scan data, take photographs and capture detailed information accurately. Most importantly: DRC Hubo can go into dangerous spaces such as mines, nuclear plants or potentially even visit other planets, performing tasks that currently carry ethical concerns where human workers are exposed to immediate or long-term risks. A potential improvement for working conditions, then? For some, perhaps.
A legitimate concern is that of job polarisation, where the jobs that remain are either senior- or low-level, while numerous mid-level jobs are automated. Even if the number of jobs is not drastically affected, this is a potential problem. In South Africa and the rest of the continent, where inequality is a serious issue already, both the public and private sector will need to anticipate this.
The first and most important area where it can be pre-empted is in education. On-the-job training, apprenticeships, tailored Sector Education Training Authorities (SETA), as well as careful monitoring of university, technicon and college curricula will be essential, to ensure continued relevance to the job market. Crucially, access to education will be more of a differentiating factor than ever. As the demand for technological know-how increases, an essential part of narrowing the gap between a small elite and low-income masses will be to ensure easy access to such training.
If this is managed correctly, and we train the next generation to use technology to their advantage, the potential for harnessing AI to Africa's benefit is enormous. AI devices can, for example, be of tremendous use in the healthcare industry (The Economist even reported on a robot that could give radiology advice!). Basic services could be revolutionised. Education itself could be made much more accessible. Sanitation could be managed faster and more easily. The routine jobs could be taken care of, while human beings engage their considerable ingenuity to solving the problems of the day.
Does that sound promising? I think so. But the key lies in equalising the playing field as early as possible.
This article was first published in the South African edition of Fast Company in March 2017.
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