One On One

Q & A – 4IR Prof Alfred Ngowi

The Free State Provincial Government will next week host the Free State 4th Industrial Revolution Conference in Partnership with the Central University of Technology (CUT). The conference, set for November 28-29 at PACOFS in Bloemfontein, will focus on different new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, BlockChain Technology, the Internet of Things, Big Data Analytics, Cloud Computing, Robotics and Automation and 3D printing, among others. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked CUT Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement Professor Alfred Ngowi about the importance of the conference and how it was set to benefit the Province. Makoni also asked Ngowi if South Africa was ready for the 4IR amid growing fears that it could worsen unemployment. Excerpts:

How important is the 4IR conference that you have partnered to host with FS provincial government?

Africa, and in particular South Africa, did not participate in the first three industrial revolutions. Now, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the President (Cyril Ramaphosa) has said that we cannot afford to be standing by. We must participate. He then formed a commission for the 4IR. So, that commission is to prepare South Africa for participation in the 4IR. And in the Free State, the Premier (Sisi Ntombela) in her July SOPA State of the Province Address, announced that the provincial government and the CUT will host a summit where we are going to take stock of what is happening in Free State in terms of 4IR and how we can move forward. The summit will be attended by key players in the 4IR both nationally and internationally in order for us to discuss where we stand as a province and how can move forward.

Does the province have a clearly defined position from what you know as a partner in the forthcoming conference?

I think that is the main purpose of the conference. We want to know where we are and how we can move forward. We cannot move forward in the darkness. We must be clear and know where we are before planning to move forward. We must all be on the same page.

Where would you place South Africa right now in relationship with developments in other parts of the world, is the country moving with the times or it’s already behind?

If you look generally, we have some pockets of activity. For example, if you look at artificial intelligence, we are doing some good work. We are also doing well in 3-D Printing but it takes a lot of hard work. That is why the president found it important that we have a commission to coordinate all these efforts. If you look at other countries like the United States and China, they are all very well coordinated and we need to do the same. If don’t coordinate, we will be ad hoc in our planning and we won’t have much impact.

Which areas of technology do you think the Free State should focus on given the nature of industrial activities we have in this province?

The Free State Growth and Development Strategy clearly indicates that the mainstay of the provincial economy is agriculture. We also have mining, tourism and manufacturing, among others. We are therefore hoping that the summit will clearly demonstrate what the 4IR has done in agriculture across the world. For example, John Deere will be showcasing to us how they use sensors on their tractors to ensure they have precision farming. The use of drones to monitor the condition of crops as well as animals on the farm will also be discussed. In mining, we also want to learn which 4IR technologies are being used as well as how efficient and effective they are. So, I can say the Free State has a clear growth and development plan but we don’t want to the left behind in the 4IR.

Not everyone is excited about the 4IR in South Africa because there fears that thousands of jobs could be lost to robots and other forms of technology, how true is that and what’s your word to those who may be sitting worried right now?

If we go back to history, when the first three industrial revolutions came in, they changed the way people did their work. So, it’s clear, the way we are working is going to change. The jobs we are doing now will not be the same when the 4IR is fully implemented. However, the new methods will be more efficient and effective. That means we need to reskill so that some of the things that the machines won’t be able to do, are the things that human beings will do. There are so many opportunities that will come with the 4IR. Yes, some jobs will be done by machines, but there are vast opportunities that people can participate in. The fear that people are going to lose jobs is not going to permeate because we are going to change the way we work.

You mentioned earlier that China and the United States are doing quite well in the 4IR era, what do you think they have differently when comparing with other countries?

For America, they have done some extensive research and when onto develop their findings. In the Silicon Valley, for example, where you have all the big technology companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook, they do fundamental research and implement that. China is slightly different. The fundamental research is not done in China, but they manage to get those technologies… and they have got very good engineers and technologists who are working on different types of technology. There is one city in China where they are only dealing with artificial intelligence. I am talking about 4 000 companies in this case. This means they have been able to apply 4IR in everything they do, starting from face recognition for the security of the country and other technologies. So, here in South Africa, when we talk about poor services, poor security, these are some of the things that we could do to improve services and at the same time, create jobs.

Will it therefore be correct to say countries that are doing well in the 4IR actually have lower unemployment rates, and therefore, this revolution can only improve and not destroy people’s livelihoods?

Let’s put it this way, the 4IR has helped China reduce unemployment. Every service they have, they are applying 4IR. It equips people with complementary skills in order to stay relevant in the job market. For example, in China, they have what they call the O-to-O which means Online to Offline, where you place orders for everything online and then it’s delivered to you. This can be food, electronic gadgets, clothing or anything you can think of. Now, they have employed millions of people where you place your orders as well as for deliveries. So, if you look at South Africa, there is a lot of potential for such work. Another big area in China is services, like cleaning, gardening and so forth. They have sensors which show where the problems are and then you deploy people to fix. There are so many opportunities that will be created by this technology.

Looking at South Africa the region, what do you think the country should be doing so that it creates relationships with other countries and not find itself being the only with advanced systems yet it cannot work with its own neighbours, what should the country do?

Very important. I think, if you look around the world, say China, India and the United State, you are talking about big economies and large numbers of people. So, if South Africa is to go alone with 55 million people, we are not going to make much impact. But if use protocols like the African Union (AU) as well as other bilateral and multilateral agreements and work as Africa and not as South Africa, the country could go far. We need to work as a region. Doing so would help because as Africa, we will have a critical mass of people who can become the market for the technology produced here. They will also participate by bringing other technologies which South Africa may not be able to produce. So, working with the region is more beneficial than going it alone.