The Fourth Industrial Revolution – an opportunity or challenge for South Africa? | Allan Gray Orbis Foundation
The Fourth Industrial Revolution – an opportunity or challenge for South Africa?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution – an opportunity or challenge for South Africa?

One of the appeals of entrepreneurship is that, by providing a platform for the harnessing of human potential, a relatively small number of individuals can have a disproportionately high impact. It is the main reason why we at the Foundation have such conviction that the current community of 750 Allan Gray Scholars, Candidate Fellows and Allan Gray Fellows, despite being few in absolute number, can have a material impact in shaping the future of the country. And recent global developments have made it possible for this impact to be further accelerated where the outcomes no longer grow in a linear manner but now exponentially. By way of example, Singularity University which explores how to apply this exponential technology to some of the world’s grand challenges has the goal of fostering ideas that each will be able to impact a billion Lives. Initiatives positively impacting a billion people is the new world of exponential technology.

The promise of exponential technology has been captured in the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which was one of the main themes of the recent 46th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at Davos. So what exactly is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, what challenges are brought with it and how can South Africa make the most of the opportunity?

The World Economic Forum gives a very clear explanation of the progression of industrial revolutions: “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

So we have the following progression:

4th-industrial-revolution explanation

A powerful example of the possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is demonstrated by one of our own. Patrick Soon-Shiong was born in Port Elizabeth before going on the graduate as a medical doctor at the University of Witwatersrand. Patrick now lives in Los Angeles and founded NantWorks in September 2011, with a mission  “to converge ultra-low power semiconductor technology, supercomputing, high performance, secure advanced networks and augmented intelligence to transform healthcare” Simplistically he aims to cure cancer by using technology to fully sequence a person’s genetic information in a matter of minutes enabling far more targeted treatment. In the meantime he is also working to assist the blind to see through a process known as machine vision.  These are the sorts of extraordinary breakthroughs that are made possible with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

But the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not without its challenges.  Most acutely there is the prospect of greater inequality in society as the revolution disrupts labour markets.  One of South Africa’s respected business leaders returned from studying at Singularity University to explain how with enough information computers are able to generate better legal opinions than experienced lawyers or investment reports than analysts.  So skilled professions such as law and investment management are not immune from the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

But despite these challenges the Fourth Industrial Revolution creates great opportunity for South Africa and particularly for entrepreneurs.  As commented at Davos by Matsi Modise, Managing Director for SIMODISA and past Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Jamboree speaker “When you think about the fourth industrial revolution it’s underpinned by technology and technology essentially underpins all the industries and that is a great opportunity for entrepreneurship.”

Ultimately the extent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s positive impact will be determined by our own agency and willingness to shape, for the good, the opportunities that it creates. In the end it will be determined not by machine technology but human values.

In the words of WEF founder, Klaus Schwab: ”It all comes down to people and values. We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them. In its most pessimistic, dehumanized form, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature—creativity, empathy, stewardship—it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny.”


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