South Africa: What Can the Fourth Industrial Revolution Learn From the Third Industrial Revolution?


Unless we can learn the lessons from previous revolutions, we risk adopting an 'add AI and stir' approach towards our current problems.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR. The term and its catchy acronym are everywhere. This revolution is being touted as the answer to many of South Africa's problems, from the ailing economy to controlling traffic and predicting extreme weather events.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers a key to South Africa's future, 4IR advocates tell us. We must get with the programme or be left behind to languish in global irrelevance. This message has clearly worried President Cyril Ramaphosa enough to set up a 4IR Commission to help turn South Africa into what he calls an "entrepreneurial state".

The ruling ANC has embraced 4IR-speak with enthusiasm. According to the party, during the first three revolutions, business owners mechanised and industrialised labour processes and ultimately used computers to automate production. 4IR involves using computerisation to digitise more areas of life, and integrating AI in production and consumption processes.

The ANC goes on to argue that 4IR "... contains within it possibilities of disrupting current economic and social structures profoundly over the next 20 to 50 years... [The combination] of these technologies...

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