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SA to create research centre for fourth industrial revolution

Image: A Health Blog [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

South Africa will establish a research centre dedicated to the fourth industrial revolution, science minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has announced.

Kubayi-Ngubane made the announcement in her keynote address at Africa Tech Week in Cape Town on 6 March.

She said that the country is in the process of setting up an “African fourth industrial revolution” centre at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. The centre will coordinate research and innovation, and test whether new technologies comply with standards and regulations.

The fourth industrial revolution builds on the third, which was automation of production through electronics and ICT. The fourth will see biology, digital technology and the physical world interact in powerful ways, characterised by processes like artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, quantum computing and the internet of things.

Kubayi-Ngubane said South Africa’s centre will be affiliated to the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The WEF centre is headquartered in San Francisco in the United States, but with international membership. It promotes collaboration on regulation and oversight of fourth industrial revolution technologies.

Kubayi-Ngubane said that the South African centre would focus on socio-economic problems and that the Department of Science and Technology is currently on the lookout for partner countries and business sector partners for the centre.

Meanwhile, the DST has a slew of other plans that aim at preparing South Africa for the fourth industrial revolution. Kubayi-Ngubane outlined several upcoming initiatives, although many are still in the planning phase. She announced that the country has commissioned the Human Sciences Research Council to conduct a “baseline literature study” about the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa. “The HSRC will present the findings during the first part of the next financial year,” she said.

Kubayi-Ngubane also mentioned that the DST is refining two other “platforms” related to the fourth industrial revolution at present, one on converging technologies—the tendency for unrelated technologies to merge, such as ‘smart televisions’—and another on inclusive development to ensure that the benefits of progress are shared.

Strong policies needed

The science minister’s remarks coincides with renewed government attention to the issue. President Cyril Ramaphosa established a Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution during his State of the Nation Address last month.

However, much work remains to be done to prepare the country for the fourth industrial revolution, officials admit.

Imran Patel, the DST deputy director-general for socio-economic innovation partnerships, said at Africa Tech Week that government will have to come up with strong social policies and policy coherence to prevent the job losses expected from automation during the fourth industrial revolution.

“We are not there yet as government and society,” said Patel. “The fourth industrial revolution is happening in front of us but there is a lot more we have to talk about. There are intellectual challenges people are still grappling with.”

He said Ramaphosa will announce the names of the presidential commission members “very soon”.

Patel believes South Africa has the potential to become a world leader in technology during this era. Citing search engine algorithms as an example, he argued that current technology has “inbuilt biases” against people of colour, women, and people from poor backgrounds. South Africa could lead the world in overcoming these biases through technology because of its “equality drive”, he said.