Are robots coming for our jobs?

Home » Are robots coming for our jobs?

In a word, yes. But it’s up to us to determine whether this is a utopian or doomsday scenario.

Even if you don’t work in IT, by now you will have heard of the fourth industrial revolution. Where the first one moved labour from farms to factories to mechanise production, the second harnessed electricity to move to mass production. The third industrial revolution automated production using electronics and information technology. And 4IR? Well, we are living it. It involves adding to the jargon soup terms such as the internet of things (IOT), big data, virtual reality, robotics and artificial intelligence.

4IR is about mastering knowledge. 

“We have to transform as quickly as technology does in order to create a more efficient healthcare systems,”  says Craig Comrie, CE and Principal Officer at Profmed.

By 2020 more than 30-billion devices are expected to be in a giant network – things that are able to share their experiences, or their data, with other things.

Our technology – our smartphones, watches, fridges, cars, security cameras and our dogs’ collars – is becoming more intelligent, and we are trusting it with more of the tasks we previously thought of as the domain of humans, whether that is interpreting a patient’s MRI scan, analysing our pool’s chlorine readings or monitoring the water levels on a dairy farmer’s troughs.

One man who is working at the innovation edge of this technology in Africa is Phathizwe Malinga, MD of connectivity company Sqwidnet.  The company has more than 600 Sigfox-based base stations that can communicate with 600-million devices with an 83% saturation of the population.

Malinga, who was part of The Professional, a podcast series created by Profmed to look at how the world of work is changing,  is passionate about finding low-cost, high-impact solutions to uniquely African challenges.   His company even offers the annual IoT SA University Challenge, which asks teams to come up with solutions to help solve any of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals using Sigfox technology.

So, what do you need to have the Internet of Things?  Malinga calls it the ABCD of IoT. You need an Application to view the data; a Backend to store the data; Connectivity for the data to get to you – and some sort of Device that you attach to the asset that will generate the data.

Malinga and Sqwidnet are trying to forge new, low-cost connections between man and machine that help us in our daily lives – and fit the African context. And the problems they’re tackling can be brand new, just like the tech they use, or steeped in tradition.

Take this example. When a young man needs to pay lobola, it’s unlikely in 2019 that he will physically deliver a herd of cows to the home of his future in-laws. More likely, money will change hands – which doesn’t quite have the same cultural cachet. It’s also difficult for a groom to save if his country’s currency may be devaluing rapidly. But ten head of cattle remains ten head of cattle.

Even if you live far away and do not farm, you could buy a cow. And using the internet of things, you can track your livestock. “We are moving into a world where we can prove there is a cow,” says Malinga. You can even track which cow is pregnant – or convert your cow into a virtual cow using crypto-currency. Soon, you could have the required 10 head of (real or virtual) cattle because you were smart, and used smart technology.

As technology advances and more menial tasks are taken over by robots, the number of actual humans needed in the workforce could drop dramatically. Not only labour-intensive or blue-collar work will drop: AI and robotics will also take over some of the workload of professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

Says Malinga: “The fourth industrial revolution is about moving from having knowledge to managing knowledge. Jobs that were knowledge-intensive, […] things like law, you are now going to find professionals having to shift how they think about what they will do when they start adulting. Rather than managing the best practices and previous cases, you start managing the knowledge and making knowledge do far more.”

In the best-case scenario, 4IR will usher in major transformations in the way we work, meaning happier people doing good work and improved quality of life for all. But if this isn’t properly managed, the risks are mass unemployment, growing inequality, widening skills gaps … a doomsday scenario.

Malinga is firmly on the side of the positive transformative potential of disruptive technology. He says Africa is full of unserviced markets – and IoT is ideal for developing the disruptive tech that can bring goods and services to Africans.

“A person with Happy Socks expects better Happy Socks next year. An African child just expects socks. The price of Happy Socks means that they can’t participate in the Happy Socks economy. The disruption theory says new entrants into that industry are the ones that start addressing the unserviced market – the one that just needs socks, not Happy Socks. The new entrant will build these socks, as cheaply as possible, to service this market,” Malinga explains.

“Using technology, they then improve these socks to a point where they start disrupting and start appealing to the market of Happy Socks wearers who think: ‘This is a bit cheaper, they’ve got the same patterns and I don’t have to pay for the brand.’”

And that’s where Africa’s potential lies.

The Professional is a podcast from Profmed about how the world of work is changing in new and surprising ways. Catch Bongani Bingwa in conversation with Swidnet MD Phathizwe Malinga on