A Revolutionary Thinker

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A revolutionary thinker


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is at the forefront of thinking about how artificial intelligence will change the world of work in the fourth industrial revolution.


When you hear Professor Tshilidzi Marwala’s pedigree, you can’t help but be impressed. Educated as a mechanical engineer in the US, where he graduated magna cum laude, he next completed a Master’s degree at the University of Pretoria, and then a PhD in computational intelligence at Cambridge University in the UK. And that was just the beginning.

Cambridge is where he first became involved with analysing the performance of machines – quality control, basically – but using artificial intelligence (AI) to do so. Prof Marwala made machines that could listen to the sound of a car engine and report on it, or take readings on a patient in a hospital ward better and more accurately than a nurse could.

“I left the University of Cambridge to go to the University of London Imperial College, where I was a post-doctoral fellow working for the European Commission project on intelligent software,” he adds. “We call them software agents or intelligent agents.”

He even made a machine that could “taste” beer and predict the taste scores of a panel of 11 human tasters – thus, putting them out of a job, potentially.

These days, Professor Marwala is an academic who has proposed theories and developed concepts and co-invented things as diverse as an artificial voice-box, or software that can bluff when it’s playing poker. Engineering, medicine, computer science, social science, finance, economics – even blockchain… You name it, he’s thought about how AI might interact with it, enhance it, or replace it completely.

He’s now the vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg and is repositioning the university to tackle the changes that AI heralds.

His scientific work has netted him more than 45 local and international awards, including the Order of Mapungubwe – South Africa’s highest honour. It’s no surprise he’s advising President Cyril Ramaphosa in his position as deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (chaired by the president himself).

Like the Presidential Commission, Profmed Medical Scheme has also been examining the fourth industrial revolution, and what this means for the rapidly changing world of work. This is why Prof Marwala is profiled as one in an eight-part series of podcasts with host Bongani Bingwa titled The Professional.

In Prof Marwala we have a person who is working on the furthest, sharpest, thinnest edge of AI development. Nobody knows better than he the infrastructure we will need to accommodate 4IR, the laws that will need to govern automation, what the post-work world might look like. Which makes it all the more amazing that, for the first 16 years of his life, Prof Marwala had not travelled more than 60km away from his home village of Duthuni in northern Limpopo!

This area, with its rolling hills and its proud history and its ancient, giant baobabs – it was the very last place in South Africa to be conquered by settlers and forced into a Western ideal of modernity.

How does a person like that come to not only inhabit, but to be a leader, in the field of a tech game-changer such as AI?

The answer probably lies in two anecdotes from the Prof’s childhood.

The first involves his grandmother – whose distinguishing skill was that she was a master clay pot maker. She may not have been formally schooled as an engineer, but unknowingly she was young Tshilidzi’s very first engineering teacher. Her system for making pots involved sourcing the correct clay from near the river (identification), shaping the thickness of the walls in a particular way for strength and durability (optimisation), heating the pot, then cooling it slowly so it doesn’t crack but instead strengthens (annealing).

And last comes QC – quality control. She’d tap the pot, listening for a particular sound that would give away a fault or a weakness lurking inside the implement. If she found it, the pot would be discarded.  Her system worked well, as long as her hearing remained sharp. But as the years went on, and his grandmother began discarding more and more pots, Prof Marwala began to wonder… Could the skills he saw at his family home be used to reshape the way we think about the world, and our place in it?

The professor takes up the story: “So that is why we have developed a piece of technology that listens to the sound of structures, such as bridges, and based on the sound, it is able to tell you whether it is in good condition. Same principle, but different technology. Of course, the listening is done with sophisticated equipment called accelerometers, and the making sense of the data is done with artificial intelligence. And of course, the algorithm does not get old and therefore it will not be able to throw away the good pots as my grandmother was doing as she was aging.”


The second story is about the high school Tshilidzi attended: Mbilwi Secondary School, today one of the biggest schools in Limpopo, with a 100% matric pass rate year after year.  Back in the 1980s, it was already an incubator for some of the region’s brightest minds.

“One thing I really appreciated about my formative years is that creativity was still valued,” says Prof Marwala. “We were assigned, at the age of seven or eight, a small garden at school, where you had to take seeds, and then you planted, you made sure you put enough fertilizer, and so on. Those things are quite complex for an eight-year-old kid to be able to do. We took it for granted. But things like that, where people were encouraging you to create, whether it is a garden and tend to it, or to create a clay car, became instrumental later on in my life.”

In 1989, Tshilidzi’s matric year, he defied the odds – and won the National Youth Science Olympiad, a huge achievement, with a trip to London as a prize.

“I spent almost the first 16 years of my life in a geographical area within a 60-kilometre radius. Obviously when I did leave that part of the world, my own horizon opened up,” Prof Marwala remembers.

The simple values of hard work and service led to his high school’s long-term successes, reckons Prof Marwala, citing this formative experience as informing his views about how we need to rebuild our country, and square up to the challenges of the tech revolution that is already underway.


At least we recognize the tech revolution is happening. And it’s a game changer. But whether this is a doomsday or a utopian scenario is up to us. Marwala says 4IR could bring about widening inequality, mass unemployment and talent shortages once AI takes over. The lucky minority work full-time jobs; it’s the gig economy for the rest of us, picking up projects that are left once the majority of the work has been done by robots and computers.


In the best possible outcome, people are freed from drudgery to pursue meaningful and satisfying work (because the repetitive stuff is being done by computers). And if the computers are taking care of the basic work, maybe we can get our basic needs taken care of automatically, too. That’s where the concept of a universal basic income comes in – the idea that everyone, regardless of whether they work or not, gets a certain amount of money to live off. So we’re not working because we need to put food on the table, or we need to make rent – we’re working because we want to. Computers do the rest.

As many as six million jobs are going to be affected in South Africa alone over the next seven years – because of automation. Each time a computer or a robot becomes able to do something better than us, we lose more jobs. We can consider ourselves most fortunate to have thinkers of the calibre of Prof Marwala at the helm of this revolution. If anyone, he might just be the type of thinker who can turn the tide of 4IR in our favour.

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