The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in hot-pursuit, moving at unprecedented speed to catch up or even overtake revolutions that existed before it, but reawakening apocalyptic fears reminiscent of the Y2K, with people wondering what form it will take and what exacting impact it is likely to have on the vast majority of humans.
For most of sub-Saharan Africa, before other revolutions complete their laps, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is becoming a reality in some parts—especially South Africa—where conversation about its arrival is building momentum across the broad spectrum of policymakers, educationists, medical practitioners, bankers, engineers, mining corporation, the list runs endless.
The Fourth industrial Revolution is preceded by three distinguishable sequences: the first, the second and the third industrial revolutions—also in their onerous stages—causing extraordinary fears and impact—both negative and positive—on lives and livelihoods and the environmental ecosystem where humans subsist.
A synopsis of these revolutions beckons more than it reckons. Britain in the 18th century, sparked off the First Industrial Revolution, transforming manufacturing processes from hand production to machine production methods, adoption of locomotives, steamboats and steamships. Innovations also included steel making processes, large scale manufacturing of machine tools and steam powered factories. It is in this era that Britain gained the technological and economic advantage, to also become an imperial power, acquiring colonies in North America, Africa and the Indian subcontinent, where raw materials emerged and where finished products were sold.
The Second Industrial Revolution occurred in the 19th and 20th century in Britain, Germany, the United States, Italy and Japan before it spread elsewhere. The revolution adopted most of the preexisting technological inventions of the First Industrial Revolution, such as steam engine, but introduced new energy sources—petroleum, most importantly electricity, which led to mass production.
This revolution produced a wave of inventions among others, the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the light bulb in 1879 by Thomas Alva Edison, first electric train in Germany, electric street cars replacing horses and radio waves across the Atlantic by Guglielmo Marconi. In a feat to make electricity more reliable, efficient and supplied over longer distances, competition brew between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla—with the former working on the Direct Current (DC) and the latter on Alternating Current (AC).
Internal combustion engines using petroleum energy were also invented, thus marking a shift from external combustion that relied on steam engines whose main source of energy was coal or firewood. Massive railroad systems were established, chemical and medical inventions done.
Starting in the 20th century, the Third Industrial Revolution billed as one of the most cunning, galvanised information and communication systems, with the invention of the personal computer and the international network, in short the internet. Today, the Third Industrial Revolution greatly influences the creation of green energy—or renewable energy—believed to be a solution to greenhouse emission imposed by Second Industrial Revolution production processes. It is perhaps in this industrial era that many billionaires are made, just as poverty increases due to massive unemployment. Also anticipated is rollout of battery powered vehicles, just as anyone would guess, is likely to render fossil energy outdated.
Technological inventions and innovations of the Third Industrial Revolution characterise new work ethics between humans and computers, between human and humans, mass production as well as mass customisation, and instantaneous communication around the world that lays huge collaborative trap in social networks, economic undertakings spreading across global villages and political movements winning elections but causing revolutions in equal measure.
But before the Third Industrial Revolution grace is fully grasped, a new revolution—the Fourth Industrial Revolution—is summing up gains its predecessors in the 19th and 21st centuries have already achieved. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is catalytic, sometimes abominable, bringing into the fold a digital revolution characterised by Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, Internet of Things, Industrial Internet of Things, 5G wireless technology, 3D printing, autonomous cars—the list is inexhaustible. But its complexity and likely effect is causing anxiety.
When Summit College learners, Olga, Keith, Allen, Natasha, Murunwa and Lerato, and their teacher Mr. Willian, converge at AccLearn Centre to get a glimpse of the future, fears are hard to allay. AccLearn stands for Accelerated Learning, and is a digital teaching and learning initiative for learners, using Virtual Reality, Robotics and other AI devices to give new learning experiences poised to impart critical skills such as creative thinking, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and problem solving, necessary for the Fourth Industrial Economy.
Summit College learners contend that the Fourth Industrial Economy spells more doom and gloom, as they envisage robots will take over while humans recede into slavery. Emphasis on AI and robotics as cornerstones of the Fourth Industrial economy prompt questions such as: what particular skills should be pertinent to survive in an economy driven by intelligent machines?
Answers to such questions are more intricate than they are clear. Rodolfo Stavenhagen (2015), although not giving response to AI but education in general, argues that education systems are structured around a number of different roles according to particular circumstances: to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, to impart skills to prepare new generations to cope with challenges of the world they live in, especially the labour market.
Mr. William, the teacher cautions that a horde of skills such as accountancy, legal practice et cetera will be no more. His caution resonates with Yuval Noah Harari the futurist writer, who imagines that by 2050, Artificial Intelligence will be able to code software far better than humans, and that Google Apps will enable humans conduct conversations in a flawless manner without requiring translations—at least from humans.
When students ask what they should learn and what they should be taught, response is not straightforward apart from causing more bewilderment. Yuval Noah Harari, in his wide exposition on the subject matter offers some clues. He says the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require people to learn new skills and new things. Harari argues that holding onto stable old identities, jobs and worldviews risks people being left behind as the world flies by.