The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is a technological era, characterised by the combination of digital technologies (fusion of physical and biological). At the centre of this technological revolution is big data and artificial intelligence (AI). This article aims to contextualise in lay-men terms what the 4IR is, what it means and how Namibia can harness the opportunities presented by the 4IR.
4IR has not emerged out of the vacuum. To understand it better one has to revisit the preceding three industrial revolutions. The 1st IR started in England with the invention of steam engines. The steam engines were first applied to pump water out of mine shafts and later applied to other industries such as distilleries and mills. The 2nd IR was powered by electricity, enabled mass production and other technological marvels such as the telegraph and telephone. The 3rd IR brought about the rise of computers and the internet. The advent of computers and the internet led to the unprecedented increase in the generation of data, produced by smartphones, sensors and other devices. To deal with the large volumes, fast-paced and variety of data, big data was coined, leveraging on technology to process and derive insights from data. Big data is an important component of the 4IR, enabling AI to derive new knowledge that can help improve processes and help businesses make better decisions.
I know sceptics will say we do not have the big data to create AI models. I incline to differ, we have a lot of data. However, the data are still stored in filing cabinets. These data need to be digitised and secure techniques explored to regulate its sharing.
Though the 4IR is aimed at making businesses (industries) more efficient by increasing productivity. It is a technical revolution, driven by AI, 3D printing and robotics. Today, machines can perform tasks traditionally performed by human beings. And with AI techniques such as machine learning or deep learning, machines have abilities to learn. Think about self-driving cars that can navigate and adhere to traffic rules and road conditions. In Australia, Rio Tinto is using self-driving ore-carrying trucks in mines. It is only a matter of time before these trucks come to Namibia. What will this mean for truck drivers in mines? Certainly, automation will make repetitive tasks obsolete. But this does not mean that the automation and 4IR will not take away jobs. I believe the 4IR will transform existing jobs and create many new jobs. However, these new jobs will require people to understand programming or coding.
A question that has been on Namibians’ minds since the establishment of the 4IR task force by president Hage Geingob is whether Namibia is ready for the 4IR. It is my humble opinion that Namibia is not ready for the 4IR, and the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us this. Hence, there is no immediate need to assess readiness on the 4IR because our experiences with online learning during the pandemic has highlighted our technical problems. What Namibia needs is a strategic policy and plan to bridge the digital divide, reskilling and infrastructure expansion in rural areas. Such a strategy should include the following:
1) Introduction of compulsory Computer Science in all Namibia schools.
2) Grassroots reskilling programs through makerspaces, coding boot camps and digital hubs in all 120 constituencies.
3) Enacting and enforcing cybersecurity laws.
4) Integration of cyber risk protection in the decision-making process.
Africa has been left behind in the previous three revolutions. Currently, Namibia is still lagging in terms of infrastructure in rural areas and the required skills set for 4IR. However, 4IR does not require legacy systems. Therefore, with the necessary investments and an agile strategy, Namibia can leapfrog into the 4IR, and we have seen case studies of developing nations quickly adopting digital technologies, transforming service delivery in areas such as agriculture, education and healthcare. For example, Agriculture accounts for 23% of all jobs in Namibia. Think about what will happen if we leverage data to help subsistence farmers improve their production yield. Modern data-driven agriculture will enable farmers to better manage the land, reduce food imports and improve food security. In healthcare, we can use 4IR technologies to improve access to quality healthcare for vulnerable communities. For example, a patient in Vaalgras can send a list of their symptoms through a text/audio/image, and an AI system can diagnose their medical condition.
In finance, the Namibia revenue agency can use data mining to improve tax administration and compliance. Similarly, the Namibia students financial assistance fund can apply data science techniques to automatically track beneficiaries and automate the loan repayment process. Namibia is faced with a perceived high level of corruption, which has broken the trust between government and citizens. AI can be used to detect corrupt behaviours, financial management and fraud detection. For example, an algorithm can be used to identify abnormalities/outliers that can further investigated to determine fraud has happened. Also, AI can be used to identify qualified bidders, which will reduce the biases and increase transparency in the public procurement process. No doubt, the 4IR provides an opportunity to use technology for efficient, transparent and responsive service delivery across all sectors.
However, the 4IR will not harness its self, nor by politicians using the jargon. The reality is that we need software developers, data scientists and AI specialists who will develop the algorithms and applications. These skills do not come cheap. Therefore, if the government is serious about 4IR, it needs to invest a substantial amount into research, innovation and start-ups. For it is the start-ups and innovators who will create the much-needed digital solutions that will help businesses and industries improve productivity. Therefore, stimulate the economy and create jobs.
In conclusion, Africa is endowed with all resources you can think of. However, in my opinion, Africa’ greatest gift is its youthful population. African countries including Namibia should prioritise capacity development for the youth. Equip the youth with digital and technical skills that will empower them to harness the 4IR opportunities. Therefore, achieve sustainable and inclusive growth.