Ghosts in the machine: how robots can harm us or help us

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Ghosts in the machine: how robots can harm us or help us

The Fourth Industrial Revolution poses specific challenges in the search for an African robotics identity

Journalist

The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, when robots take on more work done by humans, is a hot topic of debate across the world, with many asking what the long-term repercussions will be.
In South Africa, those debates are just as topical, but our unique context poses a set of opportunities and challenges that only our local experts can really speak on with some authority.
According to Cape Town-based Tyrone van Balla and Ridhaa Benefeld, whose start-up RD9 seeks to use technology and robotics in creative ways to address socio-economic gaps in South Africa, “much effort [in the robotics space in South Africa] is coming from research at universities”, but, they add, there is much untapped potential in industry.
They cite cost and lack of access to the field by many South Africans as limiting factors.However, those inside this “niche and exclusive market” are well placed to come up with robotic innovations that can help solve the problems we face, which hinge on inequality.
Dr Amir Patel, a University of Cape Town staff member on sabbatical at Carnegie Mellon University, leads a team that looks at how the movements of animals can be simulated and recreated to make robots as efficient. For him, lack of human resources is a glaring problem, while another challenge is about “finding our own African robotics identity”.
He says: “The #Feesmustfall movement was a disruptive but necessary catalyst for us to be introspective about our research which must, in some manner, improve the lives of South Africans.”
Dr Jordan Boyle, a South African robotics expert working at Leeds University in the UK, said “robots will destroy a lot more jobs than they create” and “we can’t allow individual people and companies to keep all the profits of the robotic innovations”.
He says we need to “think hard about how we impose taxes because ultimately, there is already a concerning concentration of wealth – and this will be made worse if only a small group fully owns, controls and profits from the robot revolution”.With a vast increase of people unable to find employment, “robot workers must then be taxed so that those whose jobs are destroyed are still financially secure”.
According to Edward Boje, a professor in the electrical engineering department at UCT who is working on a joint project with UKZN, the mining industry is where South Africa could really make its mark by developing robots that assist in “highly dangerous” tasks in “very harsh environments”.
He says mineworkers fear this will cost them their jobs, “but we must realise that these jobs are likely to be mechanised in the future anyway, so we are actually making a choice between developing a local robotics industry (with growth in job opportunities) or importing mining robots from somewhere”.
For the foreseeable future, “mining robots will need well trained operational and service personnel”.

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