14 February 2017

Africa: Technology Will Kill Jobs, but the Smart People Will Not Go Hungry

Photo: AZAdam/Flickr
The Asimo robot designed by Honda.
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I read in the Daily Monitor the other day, my good friend NSSF chief Richard Byarugaba talking about the future of work/jobs.

With, especially, Ugandan youth facing unprecedented levels of unemployment, Byarugaba said the future will not necessarily bring jobs, because they will be eaten by technological advances.

"We are already complaining about high levels of unemployment in the country especially among university graduates, but this is set to be even acute in the foreseeable future if the current trend of technological advancement continues," Byarugaba said.

It will.

"There are also people in Uganda today whose jobs will be extinct in the next 20 years. Artificial intelligence is becoming more pronounced and all jobs that perform the task of a repetitive nature will be replaced by automation... ," he said.

There is a sobering book, "The Industries of the Future" by Alec Ross. Actually the picture the book paints is scary - 10 times worse than anything Byarugaba said. Ross was senior advisor for Innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State and his book is partly based on stuff he saw travelling to over three dozen countries. Based on what he writes about the changes, and destruction, wrought by technology in the US, I suspect he knew Donald Trump would exploit the pain to beat Hillary.

So, we have 20 years, and an opportunity to milk the old economy and technology - though I think 20 years is too long.

In South Africa, a giant tractor company has been hiring out hundreds of tractors - without drivers. They send the things out to peoples' farms and control them from a giant screen at their operational headquarters.

I visited with a security firm in Nairobi, which is basically helping many companies get rid of guards - easily the largest private employer outside government in most of East Africa now.

They run sensors around your factory or home (where they can programme in the physical profile of family members so that they are excluded from setting off the alarm).

Suspicious strangers will be warned by an "invisible" voice to get away, and if they persist a rapid response team will arrive quickly. One giant industrial establishment with sprawling grounds, was hiring a security service that deployed hundreds of guards. When they moved to the system they cut the numbers to under 40, security improved, and pilferage was almost wiped out!

So, what is to be done? As former prime minister Amama Mbabazi once said, Ugandans need to stop "breeding like rabbits". But you can't exhort or force people to have fewer children. Make them rich, and problem solved. Before the party ends, some cashing can be done. Let us give an example. Recently Kenya released some figures showing remittances from the diaspora had risen sharply.

You couldn't argue with the numbers. Rather the question was what they meant. A chap who knows a thing about these things said the numbers counted money that people abroad send to Kenyans who help them with stuff like researching their term papers and all that.

Say you are a lecturer, researcher, or PhD student at a top African Studies department at an American university and you want to find out how Ugandans survived during the difficult economic times of our man Idi Amin.

There is some material online, books in libraries, but the best stuff is in the Makerere University Library in newspapers and journal articles that haven't been digitised. Those that are digitised are in unfriendly PDFs. You get someone in Kampala to do it for you.

In Kenya, there are hundreds of young people who do that kind of "dirty" digital work. They are a mini industry, and make a little fortune for themselves. There is a suburb in Nairobi which is populated by a myriad of new apartments virtually all of them occupied by these digital workhorses.

Others have got into networks to test products. In Kenya, with its reputation for long distance running, several chaps test shoes for sports companies. The results are tracked online.

So while technology will kill jobs, it will also create them. A recent report surprised many people. It said the technology firms in Silicon Valley were hiring nearly as many social scientists and arts graduates, as they were taking on engineers and scientists.

The reason is artificial intelligence has created market for non-technology. The question of whether a driverless car should, in an accident, kill a mother and her child, or a 75-year-old man and his wife, is a disturbing issue to be settled by moral philosophers, not computer engineers.

So the opportunity in a technology future is to be found in asking a very old question. A good Ugandan would sit back and ask; "where do I eat in all this?" Those who figure it out, won't go hungry.

Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com.

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