By Johan Steyn, 20 July 2021
Author’s note: In part one of a two-part series, I imagine a letter my son would write to me in 2050. The smart technology era brings with it tremendous promise for a better life on Earth, but there are also dire warnings that it could affect humanity with tragedy unimagined. In this part, I imagine that technological change would have resulted in a more utopian world. Next week’s article will be based on the converse conclusion.
Hey Dad, I wish you were still here. I celebrated my 36th birthday this week. You were always going on about the future of technology and how society should take it seriously. I am so glad that you and countless others worked hard to sound a clarion call, and that our society woke up to the fact that the advances in smart technology could make life better on Earth.
Back in 2020, the final report of the presidential commission on the fourth industrial revolution was officially gazetted. While the commission’s recommendations were at first largely ignored by government agencies and large businesses, they eventually woke up to the stark reality facing SA.
The world was changing fast and we were already left behind in the dust of international innovation. But finally, in 2022 an Artificial Intelligence Institute was created in Johannesburg. Many relevant government departments aligned with the private sector to create sustainable solutions for a future workforce, taking into account the unique challenges facing the African continent.
What was perhaps most surprising was that there was real action. SA went from conferences, opinion pieces and too much talking, to measurable initiatives that made a difference in the lives of millions of people. SA became a destination of choice for many of the world’s largest technology companies, which established regional head offices and research & development centres locally.
Some of our top universities became academic destinations of choice. They were offering world-class and cutting-edge training, enabling business leaders globally to understand and embrace new technological capabilities.
We were able to create a number of offshore service centres, situated near some of our poorest rural communities. Thousands of young people were upskilled and worked in buildings that reminded us of Silicon Valley. There was so much enthusiasm as some of these youngsters became world-leading entrepreneurs, creating start-up technology firms that employed thousands more.
We are now leaders in agriculture on the continent and are well on our way to create what some call a post-scarcity world. Collaboration and innovation largely turned the tide on climate change and we discovered ways to grow crops producing staggering yields.
We were able to use machine-learning algorithms to predict and treat illness. Even cancer is a thing of the past. My friends say we are now living in a transhumanist world. Whatever we call it, life is better for people who live healthier and longer lives.
My partner and I now have two children. Our doctor used artificial intelligence to compare our hereditary proclivity for illness to ensure that genetic flaws were removed from the genomes in the embryos. The doctor even asked us how we want our babies to look. Some scoff at our “designer babies” but we are happy and they are healthy.
Oh, and you would have loved this: everything in my home is automated through voice- and face-recognition technology. The fridge even orders food when we are running low, the heating and moisture are always at optimal levels and our carbon footprint is almost zero.
I need to get going. We have friends coming over for dinner. We call it a holographic feast as none of them are really here. But our brain implants provide an incredibly realistic experience as if they were here with us in the room.
I am grateful to you and others for your foresight back in the day, in reining in this technology so we can live the amazing lives we are living now.
• Johan Steyn is chair of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA. He writes in his personal capacity.