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Being 4IR Ready

by Su Aziz

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here, greatly impacting all industries and already altering the way we work, live as well as think. Here’s how economies see possibilities, seize opportunities and tackle challenges it brings on.

Each weekday, morning rush hour at the Petronas Twin Towers shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur city centre has the Mc Donald’s staff working double speed. It’s hardly 8.15am, just 15 minutes after opening time, and already more than 50 orders have been put through to its kitchen via six automated order stations. Regulars place their orders expertly on the touch screen, swipe their credit cards to pay and step aside to wait for their order while scrolling the screen on their phone. In five minutes or less, their orders are served and off they go to their respective salt mine. Everything moves like clockwork – both humans and machine – with minimal contact between human beings.

Familiar with the efficiency that machines offer, it’s unsurprising that people prefer ordering food via the automated order stations rather than the human staff at the counter. As the use of these automated order and payment stations grow, one wonders just how many waiting staff or sales personnel have lost their jobs. What’s disconcerting about this scene that many have pegged as the norm, is the fact that it’s a small snapshot of the bigger picture that reflects the future of employment.

Basically, automated order stations are replacing human workers. But this is one out of many examples. Everywhere in every industry, technology is causing disruptions while increasing efficiency and very delicately balancing the pros with the cons.

Be Two Steps Ahead
What Thomas Russel has written in his article published on Medium, gives food for thought: ‘Are we teaching students for the jobs of the future, or are we teaching them skills for jobs that exist today? Those jobs may not be available soon.’ And soon, by today’s time measurement standards, is very fleeting.

‘Just as the first three industrial revolutions resulted in job loss,’ continues Russel in the same article, ‘4IR will also cause jobs to become extinct or on its way to extinction such as television repairmen, switchboard operators, travel agents, film projectionist, bridge toll collectors, farmers, taxi drivers and the list goes on. As a matter of fact, you would be hard pressed to think of a job that cannot be taken over by technology. Just a few years ago we thought that jobs that required perception, dexterity and flexibility were exempt from being taken over by computers. However, new technology has been successful in mimicking our human senses and neural network. With deep learning, computers can perceive, learn and perform a complex task.’

How then, can we be two steps ahead to seize the possibilities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Russel points out that, ‘It is important to consider changing education and start looking more towards the future. We have to be proactive.’ So, look beyond what’s needed today, and foretell what’s needed tomorrow.

Ready, Get Set, Seize
An article published by Oxford Business Group records how different developing countries ready themselves for opportunities, as well as challenges, of the 4IR. Some examples are:

Thailand: In 2016 its government launched the Thailand 4.0 strategy aiming to develop ‘innovative and high value-added industries in order to achieve high-income status. The strategy includes the development of technology clusters and startups based around 4IR technologies such as robotics, IoT and biotechnology, and overlaps with the Eastern Economic Corridor strategy to create growth hubs in three eastern provinces’.

Indonesia: In April 2018 it launched a 4IR-oriented strategy, Making Indonesia 4.0, ‘which the government expects will help boost annual GDP growth by one to two percentage points. The strategy focuses on five priority sectors, namely food and drinks, automotive, textile, electronics and chemicals.’

Mexico: It’s one the countries in Latin America that’s leading in terms of Industry 4.0. Its government is in the process of drawing up a legal framework to regulate the transition. ‘In 2016 the state government launched the Nuevo León 4.0 programme, which aims to build an advanced industrial base centred around innovative and automated technologies, alongside the development of a number of research and development centres. In the private sector, the vehicle, aerospace and electronic appliance segments are the main centres of 4IR activity, with IoT the most advanced technology being utilised.’

UAE: In September 2017 it launched the UAE Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, ‘which outlines 18 strategic areas, four of which focus on manufacturing. These include open additive manufacturing, 3D-printed construction, intelligent grids and intelligent supply chains. In January 2018 the government and the WEF also agreed to establish the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with the aim of promoting 4IR technologies and developing a generation of experts, as well as a protocol to regulate the field. In March 2018 the national authorities formed the Artificial Intelligence Council to identify government sectors in which the technology can be implemented and spur the development of required infrastructure.’

To date, the Oxford Business Group article reports that the region of Africa is ‘perhaps most at risk of being left behind by Industry 4.0. The continent is poorly industrialised and many of its countries lack the resources and financing to invest heavily in new technologies. This is underscored by the region’s negligible share of international robot purchases – 0.2% of world sales in 2015, according to the latest ODI figures. Infrastructural deficiencies in many countries, such as shortages of reliable electricity supplies, risk further hindering the transition.’

Also, it states how, ‘The potential embedded in 4IR for countries to leapfrog previous development stages is one of the most promising aspects for Africa. Infrastructure deficiencies could even help to speed up such development in some respects, as was the case when the continent leapfrogged to mobile communications without first investing in costly fixed-line infrastructure.’ The article documents that ‘the absence of a fixed-line telephone network in Africa actually facilitated and accelerated the uptake of mobile communications and related technologies such as mobile banking, and suggested that this could also be the case with some 4IR technologies’.

Final Words
The Oxford Business Group’s article states that, ‘A key requirement for any country transitioning to the 4IR will be reforming education and training systems to provide workers with skills that are still valuable under the new paradigm, such as the ability to programme, and maintain and interact with automated systems.’

Each industrial revolution has forced re-evaluation and revamping on how things were done and altering mindsets. However, during the Fourth Industrial Revolution where technology blurs the boundaries between digital, biological and physical worlds, it’s a little more urgent. To excel in this era doesn’t only depend on the relentless need to innovate and evident dynamism, but also how we react to technology today, while holding onto what makes us human. Thus, even though the pressure is high but the future, most experts predict, is potentially bright.

WIEF Foundation’s 9th WIEF Global Discourse focuses on 4IR: Seizing Possibilities for the Future and will be held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 30 October 2019. To register as a participant, visit this link.

Read an interview with the event speaker here.

23 Sep 2019
Last modified: 15 Oct 2019
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