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[Guest Blog] AI For Africa

15 October 2019
In order to minimise disruptive job losses and maximise the benefits from new technologies, societies need to ensure their populations are adequately skilled for the jobs that will be around in the future.

In 2018, consulting firm, Accenture, released a report that revealed that 35% of all workers in South Africa - that is around 5.7 million jobs - are currently at risk of total automation (that is replacement by technology) by 2025. Likewise, the Economist reported that nearly half of jobs worldwide are vulnerable to automation. 

Now, those are scary statistics, especially in a country such as South Africa given our already extraordinarily high existing unemployment rate - if taken at face value. However, it should be pointed out that, even if those numbers are correct (and, as with anything when it comes to the future, that is highly unlikely), they reflect gross job replacement due to automation, not net jobs lost to automation.

As much as there will be employees displaced and human jobs replaced by artificial intelligence and automation in the coming years (and we should absolutely not forget about those left behind), there will also be new jobs created. Even if the new jobs created due to technological developments are not as numerous as the jobs lost due to technological efficiencies, the automation “job apocalypse” is likely not quite as dire as the scaremongers would have us believe.

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Not only that, we also need to understand that even the employees adversely affected by automation are also themselves consumers who are also benefiting from the same efficiencies that may have cost them their jobs. Advances in technological automation have given, and will continue to give, consumers increasing cost and convenience benefits as what were once upper-middleclass luxuries such as internet connectivity and virtually free online education from top-tier universities which are becoming available to even the poorest strata of society.

That said, in order to minimise disruptive job losses and maximise the benefits from new technologies, societies need to ensure their populations are adequately skilled for the jobs that will be around in the future.

Process-driven, repetitive jobs are the easiest to replace by machine learning. This is why professional accountants and paralegals now find themselves in the same boat that blue-collar factory, farm and mine workers found themselves in during the 20th century. As such, 21st century knowledge worker skills (yes, even many university degrees) will no longer be a guarantee against technological redundancy.

The good news is, however, that not all human skills are destined to become redundant. Critical thinking skills, interpersonal relational skills and human-machine interface skills, such as programming and data analysis skills, are set to be in high demand in the near future. In particular, human work involving connectivity (networking, selling, negotiating, persuading and leading) and creativity (discovering new ways to solve problems and meet human needs and desires; both essential, such as food security and abstract, such as self-actualisation) will continue to add value to society for generations to come.

The trick is to understand that the future of work is changing and that the jobs we do tomorrow will be very different to the jobs we do today. This means we need to prepare ourselves for a future filled with learning, development and change. And that means that the most important future-proof skill to develop is the ability to learn (and re-learn), rather than learned knowledge in and of itself.

By committing to a lifetime of continual reskilling and upskilling, and by ensuring that we differentiate between jobs best done by machines and jobs best done by humans, we can work together to design a future where technology assists humans in living more fulfilling, more rewarding lives, rather than making humans redundant.

Furthermore, we need to shift our thinking from a world of jobs and salaried workers, to a future of work, where more people are independently employed freelancers and micro-entrepreneurs. Big companies are more likely to work in automatable industries, and more likely to invest in automation initiatives than SMEs. In other words, looking ahead, salaried workers will be more vulnerable than the gainfully self-employed! And that could actually be something to celebrate.

We are worth more than a minimum living wage in a dead-end job. We need to find a way to add value to each other, in life-affirming value-creating work, rather than slogging away in a poorly-paying job that offers us nothing more than a salary.

Written by: Bronwyn Williams; Trends Analyst at Flux Trends