On The Unfounded Myth That Automation Destroys Jobs, The 4th Industrial Revolution And So On

It is the American computer scientist and futurist, Raymond Kurzweil, who brilliantly observed years ago that technology is a double-edged sword. When he made this statement, Kurzweil was responding to the question inferring that the rapid evolution of technology is corrupting people. In other words technology is bad for humanity. I have to admit it, Ray Kurzweil was rather diplomatic and kind in his answer to such an outrageous statement. Had it been me in that position I would probably have instructed the interviewer to jump from the bottom step, but then again, in that position one has to remain calm and sensitive to different views held by different people, and therefore respond in a manner that is both educative and informative.

To break down Kurzweil’s answer, what he meant was technology is merely an extension of humans. It is a tool conceived, designed, built and developed by people. Therefore, if it is harmful, that blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of us humans. However, it should be noted that in most cases that technology was conceived to improve our lives as a people; be it in our households, shopping malls, garages, airports, factories and other areas that form part of our daily existence. When that particular technology is used to exert harm on fellow humans or the environment, the advancement of technology should not be frowned upon; rather we should look at ourselves as human beings.

When the debate follows this line of reasoning, it begins to leave areas of engineering, science and technology, and it enters the special disciplines of philosophy, politics, psychology and sociology which deal expertly with the choices we make as people, good or bad. This is not to exonerate engineers, scientists and technologists from taking responsibility for the powerful, and if abused, dangerous tools they design and build, but to interrogate in detail the actions of our choices if and when we elect to use technology to carry out harm as a people. Perhaps, to ensure engineers, scientists and technologists become more aware of the consequences of the technologies they develop, colleges and universities, particularly in South Africa, should begin to prescribe humanities subjects to technical students; drilling into their heads Kurzweil’s powerful message: technology is a double-edged sword. In other words they should at all times remember that the instruments they design can be used for good or bad.

Having said that, I have noted with dismay and worry in the past seven years a growing, and unfortunately, rather confident chorus from economists, politicians and society in general blaming the lack of economic growth and subsequently the loss of jobs on automation. Ladies and gentlemen, failure to engage one’s mental faculties should be treated as a serious crime; once again my home country South Africa comes to mind. Notwithstanding the preceding statement, South African celebrities should be exempted. As a nation we have come to accept, reluctantly so, that our celebrities are not that very bright and therefore when it comes to matters that require intellectual heavy lifting, they should be left outside.

Folks, Industrie 4.0 is upon us. The 4th Industrial Revolution is no longer on its way. Like the legendary ‘Phillip’, it is here. So, what does this revelation mean for a country like South Africa either than being a favourite buzzword for politicians? Put nicely in Afrikaans, ‘Ons is in die kak’. The ‘great masses of our people’ who have long been excluded from participating in the economy of the country will drown further into a sea of poverty, inequality and unemployment should we continue to fold arms and blame automation for our failure – as the public and private sectors, as well as civic organisations.

When a great number of the population is uneducated or not skilled in any particular field that contributes substantially to the growth of the economy, automation, and in general technology, is bound to be viewed as taking jobs away from our people. However, that is in an incorrect diagnosis. That is not our problem as South Africans.

In a country with a sordid history such as South Africa, where the black majority are still not allowed to play an active role in the mainstream economy, automation is the least of our worries. The advancement of technology cannot be blamed for the offensive poverty we see every day across the country. Politicians and business titans need to shoulder the blame – not automation.

To prove just how horrible and evil automation is, these days opportunistic unionists and politicians prefer to dazzle their unwitting audience with a story regarding the recent introduction of automated tellers at one of the McDonalds stores – the popular American fast food establishment. Sadly, the robots have replaced the workers who used to work at that particular restaurant, with many more to follow. In industrial automation speak, this is usually justified as optimising operations to improve service. One wishes we could automate economists and politicians, but I digress.

The replacement of workers by robots is obviously heart-breaking. However, this has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with government and big business for failing to prepare for such developments. It is outrageous to think that the development of technology will stop because the South African government needs to save jobs. It will not happen, and anyone who thinks otherwise is an idiot. Instead, for those of us who have the fortune to explore solutions should apply our mental faculties into how we can best this very technology we blame for ‘destroying jobs’ to solve the crisis of inequality, unemployment and poverty.

History is a great teacher, and we are in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Perhaps, before anyone begins to moan about how automation and technology are destroying jobs, they should ask how government and big business have prepared for this new guest. A study of how old generations adapted when the previous three industrial revolutions arrived will also help; economic and social problems notwithstanding. Heaping blame on technology, specifically on automation, instead of taking politicians and captains of industry to task for not being prepared is rather lazy in thinking; and being a lazy thinker in the 4th Industrial Revolution could prove disastrous. Pula!

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