Question Time: robots, public policy implications and rising studentpreneurship in the United Kingdom

20-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Non-unionised automated robots that never need to go on leave, do not ask to go to the mall and are able to work without stopping might sound ideal. But, said Professor Colin Thakur, InSETA Research Chair: Digitalisation and Director: NEMISA KZN e-Skills Colab at the Durban University of Technology, said they lack the intuition of human beings.

He was responding to inputs made during the World of Work Strategy Group’s third and final breakaway session titled Entrepreneurship and modern technologies in the labour market – nexus between theory and practice, at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference that concluded virtually on 8 October.

The conference, with 2000 delegates — the largest of its kind ever hosted in South Africa, was conducted in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

Professor Thakur was referring to Professor of Economics/Director: Development Policy Research Unit (DPRU) University of Cape Town, Haroon Bhorat’s presentation on an economist’s take on 4IR and its impact on the economy.

2,7-million robots at work in the world

Professor Colin Thakur (right) said: “I loved your take on the innovation dimension and I noted the point that you made about the 2,7-million robots now deployed out there.” He went on to say that these robots – with their capacity to work nonstop, created some kind of fear in everyone. “But, I just want to reflect on this point, and remind the audience, that back in the 1980s when the PC [personal computer] was born, the typing pool disappeared.

“It was the automatic consequence of everyone starting to use what we used to call Wordstar and Wordperfect. People took on the responsibility of typing their own documents. Within months, massive typing pools across the world disappeared. In fact, the introduction of the PC resulted in 3,2-million job losses. But, within five years, 18,2-million new jobs had been created.”

While Professor Bhorat’s point about 2,7-million robots being deployed raised valid fears, Professor Thakur said a new kind of work was being created. “Sometimes it has an impact of displacement; and other times the impact is that it gives us the ingenuity to create new kinds of work for people. I always make the point that we forget the value of the shop floor staff; the intuitiveness that they have, that robots do not.

Robots lack intuition

“Robots have the ability to automate only the automated parts of what they see. Robots don’t see intuition; they don’t see the value that some staff has. We need to start reinforcing the value that people see and believe in.” Professor Thakur said he was keen on exploring that innovative dimension; as a survival means because it was necessary to see how the new notions of 4IR work, and what new things it creates.

“I just graduated a masters student this week using drone technology for environmental monitoring. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work that we are getting from people who are bringing drone data to us so we can do data science analysis for them.

“I was intrigued so I did a literature review with my student. It turns out that the US government is employing 70 000 people just to go over manual photographs to look for insights. There was a theory that drones were going to take away logistic work, but it is actually creating other kinds of work.”

Discussion time: Are institutions of higher learning skilling people fast enough to meet occupational demands of the future?

Professor Thakur: Professor Bhorat, what is your view on robots becoming a bit of a threat – in the short term as I’m hoping things will get better? The other point you made about reducing offshorability: I want to ask you, wearing your economist hat, to consider the Indian model. They started off by exporting clever people; then they capped it and created the best Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) destination in the world, and then they started charging us in dollars. They became very smart at what they did. Given our geographicality in the world, and given our excess in skills, do you think we can replicate a near shore kind of activity?

Professor Haroon Bhorat (left): Much as 4IR is a certainty, we also know that there will be adjustment costs that will happen in a dynamic, time-based sense. We can see the signals coming from the economy. To simplify it, there will be a replacement of labour with capital – be it robots or whatever the case may be.

Then the question is, can the institutions of human capital – higher education, schools – orientate themselves quickly enough so that we meet the needs of firms for these new skills, for these new types of occupations?

Secondly in that process, there is no doubt that workers face the threat of job losses. For me, the role is very clear: public policy has to find a way in which to ameliorate those adjustment costs – call it the just transition; call it a social plan… essentially, you are trying to make sure that the transition is managed at least in terms of the welfare and support to workers in a fiscally responsible way. The key thing is you’re trying to manage the supply side of labour so that you have appropriately skilled people able to go into companies with the new technologies.

I like the idea of the reshoring. However, there is a danger that we overstate the homogeneity of technology’s replacement ability. It is difficult to make a piece of clothing from end to end using only machines. You do need human intervention. The ratio may change, but the extent to which technology can replace workers … there is an upper bound.

Regarding near shoring, firms need just-in-time production, so we shouldn’t overstate the fact that we are losing all our productive capabilities to China, Vietnam or Bangladesh – in clothing, textiles etc. That is partly true, but firms also want distance; they want companies to be close by so they can get supply in the next week or two. Shipping and transport distances mean it’s difficult to do that through faraway countries. Therefore, reshoring is a good opportunity for sectors even within using new technologies.

Professor Thakur: Professor Dimov, I was intrigued to hear in your presentation that 10% of UK students start businesses while at university. Is this your experience at the University of Bath or in the European context in general? It’s music to our ears to hear that figure. Did you inculcate a culture? How did it happen?

Professor Dimov: This is our experience at the University of Bath; I wish I could say we had inculcated the culture, but this is data that comes from a company that runs entrepreneurship programmes across UK universities. They have data that speaks of the entire higher education sector in the UK. This was a number I took from them.

The session titled Entrepreneurship and modern technologies in the labour market – nexus between theory and practice was the last of three breakaway sessions of USAf’s World of Work Strategy Group. The other two breakaways had tackled topics such as Universities and the 4IRr Labour Market and Universities and the New Technology Moment and Society. These sub-themes were in keeping with the WSG’s mandate to study changes and trends in the world of work and their implications on the mandate and obligations of universities, and to advise on the necessary sectoral adaptations, engagements and actions in this context.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.