Humanity has embraced industrial revolutions that have improved the quality of living through technologies, created opportunities and challenges for society, governments, industry and the environment


The industrial era of water and steam power gave rise to mechanised production, the era of access to electric power enabled mass production and the era of electronics and information technology led to automated production.

The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution evolved from the third and is an era in which technologies fuse, blurring the lines between physical, digital and biological systems. This era is unprecedented in terms of pace and scope, with expected exponential growth that will disrupt industry, society, governance systems and, indeed, the human workforce.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution creates immense opportunities through an interconnected world where human resources are shared and interact across the globe. We are beyond the stage of questioning whether it is a reality or not and should rather be seeking more actionable measures as to how to prepare for it.

During the third and now during the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are constantly reviewing functions that machines and technology can perform better than humans. In the agricultural sector, machines have already outperformed human labour when it comes to several labour-intensive processes, and now in predication and analysis. In this context, while food access has improved, certain types of jobs have been lost and the environmental debate about sustainability continues.

The creation of the Sustainable Development Goals, a broader intergovernmental agreement, has been formulated based on agreed resolutions and is spearheaded by the United Nations. These goals highlight the areas of global focus, serving as a foundation as we prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The goals include Poverty Eradication, Good Health and Wellbeing, Quality Education, Clean Water and Sanitation, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Affordable and Clean Energy, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, amongst others. Undoubtedly, there is a strong relationship with technology development and, hence, the need for engineering- and technology-based solutions.

This new focus on technology and the era of interconnectedness provides immense opportunities but requires new skills to understand complexity, value and leverage diversity. The introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of neural networks methodologies are envisaged to replace several types of “knowledge workers”.

Let us examine AI in terms of how it competes against humans in the areas of prediction, analysis, perceived strategy and problem solving. Technology is now advanced enough to beat us at a game of chess using brute computing power through levels of programming. The advancement of AI can now be seen in how the technology defeats a human at the Chinese game, Go, a game that has more combinations than there are atoms in the known universe. In the game, Go, the AI uses deep learning algorithms and can learn from playing the game with itself several times over before facing a human competitor. This technology is here and now.

It is vital that we maintain mastery over the technology so that we can use it as an enabler for development. The increase in data and information, improvements in computational power and connectivity have changed the industry landscape. The main question now arises as to how we position the human workforce to be prepared for the new opportunities that these new tools can provide. The skills that would be required in this new era include statistical analysis, communication, computer programming, big data analysis, creativity, innovation, systems thinking, global resourcing strategies, international law, diversity management and entrepreneurship.

Our need to understand deeper levels of mathematics, statistics, problem solving, decision-making, and most importantly, interpretation has never been more urgently required. The skill of interpretation will be required in all professions. This means interpreting the context, the value propositions, as well as the inputs, processes and outputs of the technology systems.

There is a need for a strong focus on engineering if we are to take up the opportunities that the Fourth Industrial Revolution provides in technological innovations. This means that the new age engineer will need to understand systems, be able to innovate in multidisciplinary areas and manage specialist teams. The engineering curriculum needs to ensure that there is a deep understanding of mathematics and science, and these two subjects should be encouraged and supported across all professions.

South Africa has less than 17 000 professional engineers registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa. There are countries in the world that have a ratio of one engineer per 300 of the population; South Africa has one engineer serving more than 2 500 of the population on average. The existing throughputs of universities are unable to produce the demand required to cater for this deficit. Therefore, there should be a policy to support all areas to ensure that the engineering capacity is created, sustained and used effectively.

Leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be expected to understand the context in which they operate to remain relevant and, hence, the understanding of engineering and technology management. The focus on the use of technology in balance with the societies, governments and the environment will have to be embraced by leadership in all areas. Ethics within companies, international cultural systems and working with people from across the planet will lead us to a type of leadership that is more understanding of a decentralised workplace, electronic or technology-based communication, technology-based control systems and artificial intelligence advisors.

Educational systems that use the technology will have to become more flexible and robust. We have to take serious decisions about the mode of learning to improve effectiveness and efficiencies using technology but we must also examine the very basis of the curriculum itself. It is essential that we prepare ourselves to embrace technology as an empowering tool with responsibility and ensure that we maintain mastery over it in order to achieve our goals together as humanity.

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Issue 42


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