By Annalise Kempen
I am not a fan of sci-fi movies as I prefer to watch dramas or content that leaves me with food for thought when I leave the theatre. But I have watched movies such as Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park and in hindsight, these movies also leave one with a message: sometimes we create monsters in the name of science; then we feed them and eventually we struggle to deal with them.
On 29 August 2019, the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) hosted a seminar asking the question whether the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is a threat to human security. In his opening comments during the seminar, Prof Basie von Solms from the Academy for Computer Science and Software Engineering at the University of Johannesburg and the Director of the Centre for Cybersecurity, alluded to recent comments made by Francois Fluckiger who asked whether we have not created a completely out-of-control monster in reference to the Internet. The question is significant since Mr Fluckiger is the man who took charge of the web team after Mr Berners-Lee, who invented the Internet's world wide web, left for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1994. Although Mr Fluckiger recognised that the Internet was one of three major inventions of the 20th century, he lamented the "online bullying, fake news and mass hysteria" that flourished online as well as threats to privacy (AFP, 2019). At the ISS seminar, Prof Von Solms noted that he was sceptical about cybersecurity and reminded delegates that we live in dangerous times in terms of cybersecurity. This is why he also argued that we are feeding the Internet monster which is only becoming bigger, especially in terms of what was envisaged with the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).
What is 4IR?
The term 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) was coined by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum in 2016 in a similarly entitled book. He writes: "Consider the unlimited possibilities of having billions of people connected by mobile devices, giving rise to unprecedented processing power, storage capabilities and knowledge access." He further describes a world where individuals move between digital domains and offline reality with the use of connected technology to enable and manage their lives (Schwab, 2016).
Many South Africans only heard about 4IR when the President of South Africa, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, referred to it during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 7 February 2019. He noted that "to ensure that we effectively and with greater urgency harness technological change in pursuit of inclusive growth and social development", he had appointed a presidential commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution. This commission will have to identify and recommend policies, strategies and plans to position South Africa as a global competitive player within the digital revolution space. The question is whether South Africa, with its many other basic developmental, social, economic and crime challenges, should pay a lot of attention to the extended development of technology if we are still struggling to get the basics right on so many other levels.
4IR: some of the many advantages
In an article written for the International Journal of Financial Research, the authors Xu, David and Hi Kim (2018) write that various researchers are arguing that 4IR will shape the future through its impacts on government and business. To this extent they highlight some of the opportunities which have been noted by various researchers and which are predicted to come with 4IR. These include the following:
- The lowering of barriers between inventors and markets due to new technological developments such as 3D printing for prototyping. Such new technology will allow entrepreneurs with new ideas to establish small companies with lower start-up costs.
- A more active role for artificial intelligence (AI) where the increasing trends in AI can point to significant economic disruptions in the coming years. Since artificial systems will be able to solve complex problems, it will pose a threat to many kinds of employment, but simultaneously offer new avenues for economic growth. According to the three authors supra, a report by McKinsey and Company has found that half of all existing work activities would be automated by currently existing technologies, thereby enabling companies to save billions of dollars which can be used to create new types of jobs.
- The integration of different techniques and domains (fusion). To this extent, fusion is more than complementary technology, because it creates new markets and new growth opportunities for each participant in the innovation. It blends incremental improvements from several (often previously separated) fields to create a product.
- Improved quality of our lives (robotics). Where the use of robotics is currently mostly limited to the manufacturing industry with limited application in the medical industry, the 4IR will see to it how robots can potentially improve the quality of our lives at home, work and many other places. Customised robots will create new jobs, improve the quality of existing jobs and give people more time to focus on what they want to do.
- The connected life or the Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to offer advanced connectivity of devices, systems and services that go beyond machine-to-machine communications and cover a variety of protocols, domains and applications. By 2010 already there were more devices connected to the Internet than the total world population.
4IR: Not without its challenges
In as much as we need to highlight the presumed advantages of 4IR, we would be naive if we were blind to its challenges and the possible threats to human security, which is exactly what was questioned during the ISS seminar. It is clear that cyberspace is a fundamental part of 4IR especially in terms of the Internet of Things (IoT) and how we utilise this space. Having so many things ranging from our cellphones, cars and even light switches, home security cameras and smart speakers connected to the IoT will exponentially increase the vulnerabilities present in any network, thus 4IR calls for much greater cybersecurity. We therefore have to be aware that cybersecurity and hacking are two of the threats that need urgent attention as we ready ourselves for 4IR.