Analysis

Varsities Must Prepare Graduates For New Revolution

A year before his death, Michelangelo, who was an accomplished sculptor, painter, architect, and poet of the High Renaissance inscribed “Ancora imparo” (I am still learning) on a sketch.

This is the premise of education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) era. In the 4IR we have to learn, relearn and learn. Learning is Moses and the Prophet in the 4IR. Studies have shown that the 4IR, based on technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), which is when machines mimic human thinking – and in many instances surpass it – has the potential to disrupt every industry.

A 2017 McKinsey report predicted that by 2030, as a minimum, a third of the tasks of 60% of jobs could be automated. We cannot remain static in the face of this paradigm shift, and we certainly cannot be complacent. This month, on 16 October, the UAE announced that it would pilot the first university to have a singular focus on artificial intelligence (AI). This is part of the UAE’s AI strategy, which focuses on developing a workforce versed in rapidly-advancing technology, which will undoubtedly transform economies worldwide.

The Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), a new graduate-level AI research institution in Abu Dhabi, will accept applications for its first masters and doctoral programmes this month, with classes scheduled to begin on September 2020. As the university’s interim president Professor Michael Brady puts it:

“Following decades of research into machine learning and AI, we are now at a turning point in the widespread application of advanced intelligence. That evolution is – among other things – creating exciting new career opportunities in nearly every sector of society.” Is it perhaps time to follow suit in this regard? MBZUAI has partnered with the Abu Dhabi-based Inception Institute of Artificial Intelligence (IIAI), an applied research lab, to supervise doctoral students and curriculum development. This comes after the country also appointed the world’s first Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Omar Al Olama. In 2005, the then president of SA, Thabo Mbeki, launched the African Advanced Institute for Information and Communication Technology, also called the Meraka Institute, which is based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. When Mbeki mooted this institute, he wanted it to offer doctoral degrees. Some of the projects that it focused on were the use of AI in speech recognition. Unfortunately, much of its initial mission was never fulfilled, and it did not emerge as the AI hub it was intended to become. Now that President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is it feasible for South Africa to establish the National Artificial Intelligence Institute? One way of doing this is to repurpose what remains from the Meraka Institute to create such an institute. What are universities doing in this regard? Universities are getting ready for the 4IR. For example, the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering, based at the University of Witwatersrand, is one such initiative. The Absa Chair of Data Science at the University of Pretoria, which is headed by my former master’s student Dr Vukosi Marivate, is another such initiative.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) launched the Intelligent Systems Institute (ISI). The output of the ISI is the children’s book, My First AI Book: Artificial Intelligence and Learning. This book is being translated into our local languages, including isiZulu and Venda. Furthermore, this book is being converted into other media platforms, such as short movies. UJ this month launched the AI in the 4IR short learning programme aimed at all first-time entering first-year undergraduate students to develop students’ awareness of AI, its applications, and its implications for society and the future of work.

It also serves as a platform to teach students where they fit into the industrial changes that accompany the 4IR. The 4IR is rapidly changing industries. For example, in the manufacturing sector, operators can adjust the behaviour of robots in real-time and increase the capacity to support human operation and safety standards. South African Breweries in 2018 invested R438-million to expand and further automate the Ibhayi Brewery in Port Elizabeth. At one time, the Ibhayi Brewery was the most automated brewery in the southern hemisphere. In accounting, there is a move towards machines that analyse balance sheets and detect fraud, which eliminates accounting errors and ultimately reduces the liability of accounting firms. Entering a new revolution is not without its challenges. Some fear that the 4IR will result in talent shortages, mass unemployment, and growing inequality.

A recent report by the consultancy firm Accenture concluded that approximately six million jobs in South Africa are at risk of automation in the next seven years. The study highlighted that both blue- and white-collar jobs are at risk. These occupations include clerks, cashiers, bank tellers, construction workers, mining, and maintenance staff.

However, as Dr Martyn Davies, Deloitte’s managing director of emerging markets and Africa, puts it: “Are your jobs being taken? Maybe they have been displaced somewhere else. Jobs are not destroyed; they are just displaced. The challenge for us in our part of the world is – how do we capture the displacement?”

As South Africans, we should position ourselves in such a way that we are not playing catch-up but rather that we are leading the revolution. Here, universities play a fundamental role in developing skills for future generations. The changes to industries, as we are now seeing, require the reskilling and upskilling of our workforce to close the skills gap. The focus is to keep up with rapidly-changing industries. Graduates should be equipped with transferrable skills through a broad range of job opportunities and assisted in adjusting their approach to solving business problems in dynamic industrial environments. As a university, our role is to prepare graduates for the world of work, and some of these graduates pursue postgraduate work or further study. This is challenging the traditional ways we view curricula and teaching methods. As we adapt to this changing landscape, part of our role has to include teaching our students about the 4IR. It is not enough for us to adapt; we have to ensure that they can adapt too.

As Bruce Lee’s book Tao of Jeet Kune Do put it: “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” We have to become more adaptable.

  • Marwala is a professor and the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

OPINION: Tshilidzi Marwala