Credit: Originally published by University World News | 1 June 2018.

By Stephen Coan

Africa needs to define its own path when it comes to the fourth industrial revolution and look at what technology is appropriate for its societies, according to aspiring Martian and Head of Innovation at software manufacturer SAP Africa Adriana Marais, who is the headline speaker at the South African Technology Network (SATN) international conference later this year.

“The idea of the fourth industrial revolution being disruptive doesn’t pertain to Africa. Here we need to look at what technology is appropriate to the society,” she told University World News in a recent interview.

Questioning why Africa should have to play catch-up all the time, she said Africa should stop the constant comparison of itself with the developed world. “We can see what’s happening there but we need to define our own path.”

And the first steps on that path? “Connectivity and access to data is a priority,” said Marais. “We have to get the cost of access down. Access is one thing we need – then we can decide what we do with it.”

Marais, a respected academic and inspiring public speaker, will give the keynote address at the annual SATN conference to be held in Durban, South Africa, from 11-13 September under the theme of “The role of universities in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

SATN CEO Professor Anshu Padayachee said the conference will provide an opportunity to discuss insights from academics, industry, innovators, economists and policy-makers from various countries across the globe.

“Whilst universities have a significant role to play, the crosscutting and multidomain nature of the fourth industrial revolution requires that they engage with all stakeholders in shaping its character and consequences,” she said.

According to Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman, the fourth industrial revolution is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. Among its technologies are robotics, blockchain, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the internet of things, 3D printing and autonomous vehicles.

Opportunities for Africa

As head of innovation at SAP Africa, a multinational enterprise application software manufacturer, Marais is tasked with investigating the applications of these emerging technologies within Africa. “For example, cryptocurrency could facilitate more intercontinental trade in Africa,” she said. “The rest of the world sees cryptocurrency as disruptive but it offers huge opportunities from an African point of view.”

Similarly, the linked and secure records, known as blockchain, developed initially as the public transaction ledger for the cryptocurrency bitcoin, could have particular applications in Africa.

Marais cited countries in Africa and elsewhere where war, civil unrest or regime change leaves people either without identity documents or having constantly to renew them. “In that scenario you don’t want – or need – a central authority. With blockchain you have widely spread data providing secure on-line identity without reliance on a central authority.”

“There are 1.1 billion people worldwide who are undetected with no formal documents,” said Marais. “78% are from Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Consider the implications that has for access to education, healthcare and financial services. Without ID you simply can’t access them. Blockchain is a natural fit.”

3D printing would enable Africa to manufacture and export to the rest of the world. “In China they are printing low-cost housing made from waste,” said Marais. “Its use in Africa would boost local manufacturing capability.”

Marais said artificial intelligence (AI) doesn’t have immediate benefits for Africa “but we have machine learning and have been using it for decades”, adding that it was particularly useful in healthcare, such as in diagnosing cancer. “It’s helpful in scenarios where a lot of data is required.” She said data on the African human genome could be especially useful in this regard. “The African genome is the most diverse – it could be important for the rest of the world.”

Biotechnology together with other aspects of the emerging technologies also have a role to play in agriculture in Africa, said Marais. “They could optimise agricultural processes,” she said, not least in urban areas. “Africa has the fastest urbanising population on the planet. How do you provide food in urban centres? The solution could lie in vertical farming, precision and smart farming.”

But, and it’s a big but, Marais asks if it really makes sense to talk about the fourth industrial revolution in Africa, a continent where some societies are still grappling with the first.

Defining our own path in Africa

What role can South African tertiary education institutions play in helping Africa to define its own path? Marais’ experience in the private sector plus her university background, which includes being a post-doctoral researcher in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, give her a broad perspective from which to answer.

It’s a case of the cart before the horse, according to Marais, given the current disconnect between secondary and tertiary education in South Africa leading to high drop-out rates at universities. Added to this the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2016 ranked South Africa last in mathematics and science education quality. “That doesn’t bode well, to say the least, for the future,” said Marais. “We are sitting with a system that needs an overhaul from pre-school onwards.”

That said, Marais sees “collaborative and interdisciplinary studies as the only way forward”. Something her university career embodied. She fought to do a BSc combining physics and philosophy and then went on to a doctorate in quantum biology. “A subject that was the fusion of two previously separate subjects, quantum physics and biology. We need to combine silos of knowledge. In that way problem-solving capabilities are enhanced.”

Marais poses her own question: are universities teaching subjects reflective of the fourth industrial revolution? “Are they teaching the 3Cs – computers, connectivity and cryptography? Are they teaching blockchain? It’s been around for 10 years so there is no reason to delay.”

Humanities as part of the equation

And humanities should be part of the equation. “Ethics and logic will be so important going forward, especially in the field of AI, while the philosophy link-up with data sciences is obvious. But meanwhile university philosophy departments seem to be disappearing.”

On a more optimistic note Marais cites the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the South Africa and Australia partnership to create a huge radio telescope as “a fantastic opportunity for Africa”. The internet came out of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) and Marais points out that the data collected by the SKA will exceed by several orders of magnitude that harvested by CERN. “New technologies will arise out of the SKA that will increase human capacity and physical infrastructure.”

Innovation often arises out of research and Marais cautions against both universities and business being blinkered by short-term profit. “The contact between researchers and business needs to be increased,” said Marais, but research should not be restricted to expected outcomes: “Innovation is initiated by researchers, and sometimes by accident; for example, the laser was originally thought to be useless.”

As to Marais’ status as an ‘aspiring Martian’, it comes courtesy of being one of the short-listed 100 candidates for the final 24 to be chosen for Mars One, which aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet. The project utilises just about every technology of the fourth industrial revolution and will probably throw up more. As Marais observed: “Exploration drives innovation.”

It also inspires. The Apollo space programme had a huge developmental impact, thanks to inspiring a generation of students, said Marais, “a cohort of students that went on to produce the personal computer, the mobile phone and the internet”.