By: Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg
The fourth industrial revolution is upon us and it will have a tremendous impact on every aspect of our lives. To understand it, one needs to understand the history of industrial revolutions.
The first industrial revolution, the age of steam, began in England, with the main catalyst being the scientific advances that Isaac Newton made on the understanding of the laws of motion, which led to the laws of thermodynamics.
The second was catalysed by the studies done by Michael Faraday and formalised by James Maxwell who observed that when a copper wire (conductor) moves next to a magnet it generates electricity. Faraday also observed that when we pass electricity through a copper wire positioned next to a magnet the copper wire moves, thereby, giving us electric power, which ushered in the assembly line. Again, these ideas were developed in Britain but were industrialised in the US.
The third, which came out of the ideas of Shockley and company, gave us a transistor and ultimately computers and the electronic age.
The fourth is giving us cyber-physical systems, where human beings and machines will merge.
We will wear clothes that measure all characteristics of our bodies and relate those to our health and then contact a doctor for us when we are about to get sick. Cars will need no drivers, aeroplanes will need no pilots and factories will need no people. It will be a post-work era. We will need graduates who are innovative, internationally oriented, with strong problem-solving capabilities.
This requires that we evolve higher education. Modern universities started as elite institutions owned by religious institutions. During the first and the second industrial revolutions, many universities were formed to bring higher education to the masses. We are in an era where higher education is democratising because all the materials that one can learn from universities are online, in both text and video formats and can be accessed free of charge if one has a computer and internet.
How will the fourth industrial revolution change the university curriculum? Given all these developments, how do we orientate our universities so that they are able to thrive in this era?
Firstly, universities need to produce graduates and knowledge that are relevant to this era. Because of the convergence of humans and machines in the fourth industrial revolution, the education that we offer should be multidisciplinary.
What does multi-disciplinary education mean? It means that those who are studying humanities and social sciences subjects such as psychology should also study technology in their curriculum.
It also means that those who are studying science subjects such as mechanical engineering should also study social science subjects. Even though Britain was instrumental in the first and the second industrial revolutions, it failed to capitalise on the third and especially the fourth industrial revolution because the curriculum of its universities is too specialised on a single discipline.
On the other hand, in the US, liberal arts underpin university curricula and thus offering both humanities and technology to students. It is because of this reason that it was not Britain nor the technologically adept Germany that invented social networking technologies, such as Facebook and Twitter, but the US.
How will the fourth industrial revolution change how we teach? The advances in artificial intelligence technology, which is at the heart of it, will drastically change the nature of our classrooms.
Given the availability of online courses, often given by world experts, we should bring online materials into our classrooms and elevate our teachers to serve more as mentors. We call this "blended learning" because we blend classroom teaching with online learning. The advances of electronic books, which are embedded with face recognition technology, allows us to monitor the progress of students and identify areas where each student is facing difficulties and intervene to improve student success. The advances in technology will eliminate much of the laboratory infrastructure, which is expensive, and replace them with software-based laboratory equipment and virtual reality.
Most of the teaching will be done outside the classroom and many online courses will become available and, thereby, reducing the cost of education.
Furthermore, the fourth revolution will enhance internationalisation of universities. This is because as students and academics work on projects together online and across nations, automated speech translation technology will eliminate communication barriers.
How will this change how we do research? Technology has been central in improving the way we do research. For example, the Large Hadron Collider at Cern facilitated our understanding of the universe when it detected the Higgs Boson.
This ultimately won Peter Higgs a Nobel Prize and this is an example of the centrality of technology in research.
In the fourth revolution, innovation will become easier as it will enhance concepts such as open innovation and allow people to work on big problems together online.
For example, Satoshi Nakamoto used the concept of crowd-sourcing to create the cryptocurrency Bitcoin that uses the blockchain technology.
In South Africa, are we ready for the fourth industrial revolution? Do we have the expertise in crucial areas of the fourth industrial revolution such as artificial intelligence and block chain technologies? The answers to these questions are not encouraging. South Africa, through the National Research Foundation and in conjunction with industry, should create special initiatives that target these technologies.
The government, just as the US and Chinese government have done, should develop a robust strategy around artificial intelligence, in particular, and the fourth industrial revolution, in general.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in The New Age (South Africa), on 27 December 2017.