By Tengetile Hlophe and Thula Sizwe Dlamini

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has transitioned from being something that works behind the scenes – whether suggesting friends on Facebook, Tinder, LinkedIn, or delivering emails into your inbox or disbursing money through an ATM – to something much more powerful and disruptive.

Machines are now outperforming the most talented humans in many endeavours. There is a need to make households aware of the speed and depth of technological change and its implications on social and economic development.

In their book titled ‘What To Do When Machines Do Everything’, Malcom Frank, Paul Roehring, and Ben Pring make it clear that “artificial intelligence has left the laboratory (and the movie lot) and is in [our] buildings. It is in [our] homes. It is in [our] offices. It is pervading all the institutions that drive the global economy”.

In 2016, the World Economic Forum hailed the rise of AI as the Fourth Industrial Revolution while in November 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia awarded citizenship to a humanoid AI – Sophia.

We pondered the implications of these developments on households and the economy at large and what Eswatini, a youthful country, would have to do to take advantage of the opportunities that come with the fourth industrial revolution.

If you have a child who is aged 18 or below or going to college, university etc. in 2018, you need to think about whether or not you are preparing him or her for the economy of the future.

As you think about this, keep in mind that AI has taken (and is taking) over driving, trading of stocks, health care, law, engineering, architecture, agriculture, education, journalism, etc. AI enhanced computer systems (algorithms) have made this possible. The rise of these machines has led many to opine that we have entered a ‘know-it-all’ economy that has very little need for human force.

Also, consider that in agriculture, automation is making it possible to monitor irrigation systems, crop growth, yields, diseases, and the movement of livestock with ridiculous amounts of precision, and in the process is helping farmers increase the productivity of their farms and raise their incomes.

In the financial sector, finance technology (otherwise known as fintech) has revolutionised banking as we knew it (with mobile money, smartphone banking, and a flood of a variety of Apps that have simplified banking). It is now possible to conduct critical daily business transactions using your pocket-sized computer – the smartphone. And the latest in fintech is the Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) (which is defined as a consensus of replicated, shared, and synchronised digital data geographically spread across multiple sites, countries, or institutions. There is no central administrator or centralised data storage), mainly the Blockchain.

The blockchain promises to change the way in which we do business in the global economy through the introduction of algorithms that will change the way humans interact with markets and service providers, forever!

Already, there are dozens of cryptocurrencies (electronic or online currencies backed by the blockchain) that have changed the way young people view the economy.

In retail, we are seeing the rise of commodity specific cryptocurrencies. Led by the Bitcoin, these cryptocurrencies and alternate currencies (Altcoins) are changing the game in a number of sectors, though they are being met with harsh resistance.

In health, AI is disrupting traditional professions such as dentistry, precision surgery, etc. In education, AI has made it possible to have contactless university education and, in the process, has rendered many professionals in the higher education sector jobless.

The machines are able to disrupt business processes because of their huge appetite for learning, otherwise known as machine learning. They are always on, always learning, and constantly thinking. Yes, constantly thinking…

As a result, AI powered machines are beginning to challenge, and enhance, the intellect and experience of even the well-informed professionals amongst us! The drive is to attain process efficiency, defined as ‘the capability of human resources to carry out a certain process in a way that ensures minimised consumption of effort and energy’.

The blockchain is being used in government offices to simplify the management of trusted information, which could make it easier for government agencies to access and use critical public-sector data while maintaining the security of this information.

Elsewhere, countries such as the Republic of Georgia, amongst many others, have already started to test technologies that are backed by the blockchain while some states in the USA are in the early stages of creating incorporation services based on blockchain records and smart contracts, rather than paper-based exchanges.

To be clear, the picture that is emerging from the above discussion suggests that current top jobs are also disappearing and are disappearing fast! In his book ‘The Rise of the Robots and the Looming Threat of Mass Unemployment’, Martin Ford confirms that a majority of the jobs that are taken over by machines are those that employ a large proportion of the workforce in developing countries.

So what can Emaswati do to benefit from the opportunities that AI or automation brings? First, we need to fix the education system. Instead of being fearful of the disruptive technological changes upon us, let us use the education system to prepare young people for the industries of the future. Fixing the education system will require the country to be bold in how it uses information and communication technology (ICT), such as internet, to deliver a wide range of services, including education, to households.

One way of robot-proofing one’s job is by developing many soft skills, which could be done through using the internet for productive economic activities such as learning. However, at the present moment, there is limited productive use of the internet in Eswatini, with levels at a ridiculously low 33%. Even then, a majority of those using the internet use it for social media purposes. We get back to this later.

Second, since the economy of the future is very dependent on electricity, Eswatini must explore and implement activities that will strengthen the country’s electricity infrastructure and by default, electricity provision in Eswatini, to enable households and businesses to use the internet to solve their everyday challenges. Many opportunities await those who are willing to do the spadework to ensure that our economy has the energy it requires and that when droughts hit, they do not drive the country into energy insecurity.

Thirdly, automation comes with many opportunities for developing a new range of products and services within our borders. Opportunities are plentiful for emaSwati interested in venturing into businesses that will manufacture ICTs in Eswatini to take advantage of the growing demand for these locally. As you think about it, consider that 79% of the population of Eswatini is below the age of 34 years.

Fourthly, the foregoing opportunities speak to the need to target deliberately developing Eswatini industrialists in the area of manufacturing ICTs for the simple reason that the economy of the future is dependent on them. Consider also that virtually all ICTs collect, in one way or the other, data – that is crucial for informing firm production and government policy, amongst many other things.

Lastly, we live in a country with many economic opportunities. Yet a majority of the people does not see these opportunities. This is notwithstanding that nearly everything found in Eswatini households has been produced outside our borders – even, as Mangaliso Mohammed puts it – ‘basic everyday stuff like toothpaste and soap!’ There is need for mind-set altering programmes to sensitise the public on the benefits of consuming what has been produced inside our borders (such as jobs and improvement in the country’s ability to manufacture goods and services, also known as tacit productive capacities). Mind-set altering programmes could also help prepare households for, and to see the opportunities that come with, the economy of the future and to help them engage in productive ‘Do It Yourself’ activities.

We are very optimistic about the economy of the future. We believe that all the changes that are taking place are well-documented and the opportunities that come with them. The good news is that they are available online (internet). However, as already discussed, Eswatini households do not use the internet as much as they should for the economy to see the positive economic spin-offs that come with the widespread use of the internet. In most cases, costs are the main reason why households are shying away from the internet. But this should not be the case. Having access to the internet is no longer a status symbol – it is now a basic human right. To be clear, in December 2016, the United Nations declared the internet a human right and added it to article 19 section 32 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The opportunity is in pooling resources to ensure that emaSwati have access to, and use, the internet for productive economic activities. Some of the basic improvements will have to be focused in rural areas, where the application of the internet to solve everyday challenges is likely to yield the greatest social and economic benefits.