The fourth industrial revolution is underway.
It is building on the rapid adoption of Information and Telecommunications Technologies (ICTs) that was the basis of the third industrial revolution.
This revolution’s disruptive path across the world is referred to as digital transformation.
Although there isn’t a conclusive definition of digital transformation, it is characterised by different components of new and emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain and 5G.
Introduction of any of these technological components anywhere can be unsettling. However, their advent heralds a great opportunity for solving society’s most pressing problems.
In virtually every sector that has leveraged these technologies, there are better outcomes.
OPPONENTS' NARROW VIEW
Opponents, however, take a narrow view of the potential benefits that society gets from their adoption. They fail to see the big picture.
Others think the onslaught of these technologies is a passing cloud. The truth is that such technologies are here to say as they become popular even with the opponents.
Some forward-looking countries have adopted mechanisms to look into their impact on their economies. In Africa, Kenya has taken an early lead to develop a roadmap for greater adoption of the technologies.
In my view, these technologies are the knight in shining armour for Africa after many years of playing catch-up with the rest of the world. Now, with the right leadership, the continent has the opportunity to leapfrog development.
I say leapfrog because Africa does not have legacy issues faced by many countries. Africa is starting on a clean slate.
In manufacturing, for example, large-scale production will give way to cheaper customised micro-productions (see Figure 1 below where a combination of 5G and AI work in tandem to micro-manufacture ballpoint pens).
Those working in legacy manufacturing outfits will lose jobs but only those who embrace life-long learning will build new skill sets to produce at the micro-level.
The future of jobs and learning has become more important today than in any other period in history.
Last year, I participated in two conferences that sought to understand the future with these new technologies.
The first meeting was in Ottawa, Canada, looking into the future of work in a world that is embracing AI-supported autonomous manufacturing.
The second was in Berlin, where we discussed the future of learning and how new technologies will impact learning as we know it today.
At the World Mobile Congress last month in Barcelona, the buzz was 5G, AI and IoT. In some cases they are all used in combination to create new enterprises that never existed before.
Indeed several companies are using these three emerging technologies to develop new solutions. For example, the Digital Sky Initiative (DSI) by Huawei will significantly disrupt the transport industry.
DSI 1.0 gave rise to Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) that can reach a height 50 metres, enough to be deployed for agricultural inspection applications.
Version 2.0 of the DSI went up to 50 metres and now version 3.0 can reach 300 metres. Version 3 can be deployed for drone taxi services in cities that are increasingly getting clogged with traffic jams. I had the privilege to sit in one of the earliest air taxis on display in Barcelona (see Figure 2 below).
Several countries have built their own prototypes as solutions to problems they perceive.
When someone asked me whether Africa will develop its own AI products, I responded that indeed Africa has many problems solvable by AI and as such there will be many products, including an autonomous “Pythons” that will deploy its constrictive abilities against night intruders and solve the problem of burglary.
Although I have no prototype of my own, I discovered that there would be more customers beyond Africa.
The imagination of new applications enabled by these emerging technologies are limitless, with the potential of greatly contributing to technological advances that we missed before.
DIFFERENT VIEW OF JOBS
There are many other traditional initiatives like wireless-connected health services as well as autonomous factories (see Figure 2). Critics will look at such precision solutions and argue against their application because they eliminate jobs. On the contrary, there are many new jobs that are created out of such new technologies.
Technologies never eliminate jobs. They just force people to look at jobs differently.
We therefore need to wake up, learn new skills and leverage technology to change the world.
Research in the field of health, for example, shows that pharmaceutical production is based on statistical estimation of healing the majority of patients.
The new thinking is that people have different genetic make-ups and each would perhaps require personalised medicines based on pharmacogenomics in order to effectively deal with the targeted disease.
OTHER SELECTED APPLICATIONS
At Nairobi Innovation Week, Barclays Bank’s chief executive disclosed that the lender is using artificial intelligence in its back-end operations.
It is among several banks across the world that are using AI to minimise fraud. Barclays is following the banking trend globally.
The 2017 PwC FinTech Trends Report (India) reported that in 2016, “global investment in AI applications touched $5.1 billion, up from $4.0 billion in 2015.
“While large commercial and investment banks globally are incorporating AI and blockchain for both back-office and customer facing purposes,” emerging economies are debating the efficacy of these technologies.
Myriad, A South African company, has set up in Kenya and through its product Thingstream, it has rolled out a USSD mobile technology to help empower enterprises to deliver mobile services to enhance customer engagements and improve services, regardless of device or connection.
Thingstream’s intelligent global connectivity platform provides low-power, low-cost, and ubiquitous IoT connectivity over GSM.
The company is able to offer a secure, out-of-the-box IoT connectivity solution of its kind that leverages the globally available GSM network to offer immediate, global IoT connectivity that no other Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) provider can today.
Some of the solutions they offer are asset tracking, remote condition monitoring and control, logistics and supply management and other customised services.
A local start-up, Vakava Technologies, which showcased its technology at the Nairobi Innovation Week, is determined to lower fishermen’s losses by providing unbreakable cold chain services from first mile to last mile, globally through their IoT solution.
In Lake Victoria, where sometimes fishermen lose up to 70 per cent of their catch due to poor management of the fish harvest, Vakava has deployed more than 306 beach management units (see Figure 3 below), accounting for only six per cent of what the fishermen require to change their outdated solution that in most cases led to their heavy losses.
The image above shows a traditional fishing community Beach Management Unit cooling box next to the modernised and tech-enabled Vakava quickcold smart cool box (with IoT) being used by a fishing community.
On the left are the plastic containers used to preserve harvest after fishing using ice cubes as the cooling agent.
There is no doubt that emerging digital technologies are forcing their way into Africa. They will change Africa’s way of life like never before.
The best we can do is to be among the early adopters and take the advantage of being the first to solve our problems.
There is no point resisting change that is inevitable. Instead Africa should embrace technology since it promises to help the continent leapfrog.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito