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How the 4IR in South African universities can exacerbate inequalities between the rich and poor

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We have all read and heard about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but what is it really? It can be described as the advent of “cyber-physical systems” involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines. Sounds a bit like a movie right? While these capabilities rely on the technologies and infrastructure of the Third Industrial Revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents entirely new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even the human body. Examples include genome editing, new forms of machine intelligence, breakthrough materials and approaches to governance that rely on cryptographic methods such as the blockchain. Quite a mouthful, but in short, technology is paving the way into an amazing future.

Let’s just take a moment to think about how smartphones have not only changed our lives but the whole world. The first smartphone was introduced in 2007 and from there, everything from ordering food, to communication platforms and even educational apps have completely changed the way we live and function. Without phones, people feel completely disconnected from the world and even the teeniest toddler can be seen running around with a tablet or smartphone glued to their tiny hands.

Universities are currently the front runners for exacerbating the inequalities between the rich and the poor when it comes to the 4IR. We are all very well aware that there are massive gaps when it comes to education from even a primary school level in South Africa where most schools don’t even have proper ablution facilities or infrastructure. Wits University is one of the founding members of the 4IRSA which is an alliance with the University of Johannesburg, Fort Hare, Telkom, private sector partners Deloitte, Huawei and Vodacom and the Department of Communications and Digitial Technologies 4IRSA aims to speed up the development of an inclusive national response to the 4IR for our country based on research.

When looking at various 4IR technologies to be implemented, these include artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, advanced biotechnology, robotics, the internet, speedy connectivity in the form of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 and of course, 3-D printing. Although all of this sounds absolutely amazing and forward-thinking, the social efforts of unemployment are absolutely devastating.

Africa’s population is growing at a frightening pace and the divide between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger. If we look at mining for example, which contributes to a large portion of employment, the 4IR poses a risk for more than 500 000 people to lose their jobs when operations become fully digitised. Where there is inequality, there is also violence and life expectancy is not exactly on a very high level. New technologies also poses the risk to increase benefits and value in the hands of the super-wealthy and those not as fortunate are going to be left behind even more than they are at the moment.

It is up to the South African government and governments around the African continent to be smart about adapting, but ensuring that basic needs are met first and that poverty and job creation are currently top of mind. No use in being fast movers when the foundations have not even been laid properly and already cracking!

How the 4IR in South African universities can exacerbate inequalities between the rich and poor


Inge Liebenberg




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