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BusinessDay: ‘We are offline’: SA government and the second industrial revolution

While failing to tackle fourth industrial revolution the government needs to implement reliable 2IR solutions.


By Johan Steyn, 11 October 2023


Over the past few years, much has been said about the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the present era of technological advancement as digital, physical and biological systems converge. These developments have been spurred on largely by widespread adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.


I call on our government urgently to launch a presidential commission on the second industrial revolution (2IR). Yes, you read it correctly: the second. But wait: did we not already see a presidential commission on the 4IR? On October 23 2020, then-minister of communications & digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams published the report of the presidential commission on the “fourth industrial revolution” in the Government Gazette.


It emphasised many recommendations, chief among them the imperative to build substantial 4IR infrastructure. It underscored the urgency to incentivise future industries and applications along with investment in human capital related to 4IR.


The report also recommended establishing a local AI Institute. It is a place where researchers, scientists, and engineers work together to develop new technologies and applications that can help solve complex problems. We need African experts to develop innovative solutions unique to our continent's challenges, minimising our technological dependencies on Global North countries.

In the AI era, things are moving fast. We do not have the luxury of taking our time. So it is troubling that our local AI institute was launched only two years after the 4IR report proposals were published. (See my article from January: “Wanted: local experts to provide input for artificial intelligence institute”.)


After some initial press coverage and fanfare, things went dark. Or so it seems. I work in the field of AI and collaborate with many other local AI experts, but sadly we are not aware of what the institute is doing. Are they actually doing anything of significance? Or is it just a bunch of academics, perched in their high and lofty chairs, debating and publishing academic research? I was hoping, that by now, we would have seen a significant wide-scale technological impact on some of SA’s most urgent societal challenges.


In its “Government AI Readiness Index 2022” report, Oxford Insights ranked 181 countries by how prepared their governments are to use AI in public services. SA ranked second in sub-Saharan countries behind Mauritius, but only 68th on the global countries score.


It is as if our leaders are technologically “offline.” Speaking about being offline, have you tried recently to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF)? It is a joke.

Some of my unfortunately unemployed friends have been relaying stories of long queues, questionable office hours, frequent staff lunch and tea breaks and a constantly repeated chorus of “we are currently offline.” Sadly the UIF issue is only one among many services, desperately needed by our poorest poor, that are for the most part not available when people most need it.


One of the hallmark achievements of the 2IR was the large-scale production and distribution of electricity. It was also the establishment of functioning rail networks.


Dear Mr President, please can you convene a council of smart people to implement reliable 2IR solutions while urgently addressing the 4IR feet dragging?

• Steyn is a human-centred AI advocate and thought leader. He is the founder of AIforBusiness.net.

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