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The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), a “buzzword” we all must internalize

The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) is centred on globalization and 4IR. While the topic may sound like a fad, issues do not get more serious than this one is.
Many of us already interact with the technologies that characterize this new industrial revolution. For those that have iPhones, Siri is a phenomenon we take for granted because it seems routine, boring even. Others completely ignore it but the technology behind it has real impact. It makes previously impossible things happen.

For instance in new generation cars one can use the car’s digital interface to replicate their phone apps, and to then give those apps voice instructions, such as dictating WhatsApp messages while driving. It is convenient and safe. There are other implications, however.

This technology, Artificial Intelligence - robots and the computer programs that drive them can compete with humans, and beat them at the jobs they invented. It can go further. It has the capacity to learn better and faster than humans, and produce insights and with speed, the human mind cannot do as fast or as efficiently. This has serious implications for the ability of humans to hold on to jobs.

Look at it this way: the jobs we think our children will be employed in when they are adults will likely not exist anymore, or at least not be the same as they are now - if we are lucky.

One of the hottest topics at the WEF concerns what is called “the future of work” and how we need to re-skill people now already. This is so that instead of performing tasks, they develop the ability to program and instruct machines to do that work. It also means changing how we understand the purpose of school education, the curriculum that is offered and the kind of teachers that instruct children.

The WEF has published a very good paper on re-skilling - which I would encourage you to read.

The report provides insights to help companies make the crucial decisions about whether they need to re-skill existing workers or hire new employees with new skills. This means laying off part of their current workforce in order to make space for the new. In countries like the US where the job market has been growing (for now), the impact may not be so devastating. However, what happens in countries where that luxury does not exist? Could people be left out in the cold forever because it is not possible to re-skill them to a level where they offer the same value to the economy that they did before technology intervened?

An easy answer may be to say we should hold off on new technologies but this will not help. The rest of the world is marching ahead, and while we can block new technologies within specific boundaries, those economies will find themselves being uncompetitive.

This issue is very important to us at Absa because it is central to our strategy and will occupy centre stage as we continue to make choices about how to help advance the skills of our people, Africa’s youth and how we collaborate with governments.