Tackling 4IR , turning pupils’ anxiety to hope

Opinion piece published in The Herald (South Africa) on 9 March 2021

Jean Greyling

When Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum, coined the phrase “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR), he argued it would happen at an exponential pace and that new technologies would change society in unpredictable ways.

Centre to this would be artificial intelligence (AI) driving machines to become more efficient than humans: medical diagnosis done faster and more precisely than a radiologist or cars being manufactured faster than any assembly line workers.

Then we have autonomous vehicles, smart homes, vertical farms, fuel efficiency, prediction of natural disasters and so on.

Within all of this excitement though is anxiety.

It’s a no-brainer that many jobs are at risk of disappearing, while millions of people could find themselves with unusable skills.

In 2019, I was at Unesco’s Mobile Learning Week in Paris, where this challenge was discussed in a presentation by the president of the World Labour Organisation.

I remember my pride when President Cyril Ramaphosa was mentioned as one of the leading world statesmen who understood the opportunities and challenges of the 4IR.

His leadership in this field has been visible in SA.

At the department of computing sciences at Nelson Mandela University, we were proud when one of our Masters graduates, Baxolile Mabinya, was appointed as a member of the President’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Commission.

This was led by another daughter of the Eastern Cape, minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Understanding the importance of education within the 4IR, government has been actively promoting coding and robotics as a subject in schools — from as young as Grade R.

One thousand pilot schools were identified where this would be rolled out in 2020.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which dealt us all a curve ball, and clearly put a hold on the rolling out of coding and robotics in schools.

Covid-19, with all its negative effects, has catapulted many societies into the 4IR.