“Welcome to tomorrow!” and “Tomorrow is already here!” are popular phrases often used in the context of the so-called Fourth Industrial revolution (“4IR”). Thus at the Sight Tech global Conference held on 2nd and 3rd December 2020, one of the plenary sessions was titled “Our AI future is already here”. In Profit and Prejudice: The Luddites of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Paul Donovan summarises the past three industrial revolutions as (1) steam power, (2) electric power, and (3) computer power. Nicholas Johnson and Brendan Markey-Towler speak of the four revolutions as the industrial revolution, the technological revolution, the digital revolution, and the fourth industrial revolution. They go on to note that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the current period of economic transition since the mid-2000s, characterized by a fusion of new digital technologies, rooted in advances from the Digital Revolution, with technological applications in the physical and biological domains. Similarly, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, formerly the European Management Forum, observes that the fourth industrial revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.
Nancy W. GLEASON cites MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as referring to 4IR as the Second Machine Age (“2MA”). According to them, while the first machine age was about the automation of manual labour and physical strength, the 2MA technological progress in digital hardware, software and networks is about the automation of knowledge. At the core of the automation of knowledge is artificial intelligence (AI). Johnson and Markey-Towler explain: “Artificial intelligence, especially when endowed with machine learning algorithms, is a technology which seeks to mimic the functioning of the human mind, and which can therefore mimic human action guided by a process that mimics human thought.” Johnson and Markey-Towler further observe that artificial intelligence has greatly enhanced the use of robots:
…, the 4IR moves the goalposts from automation to smartization, whereby intelligently programmed software and robots are able to collect new data during the regular course of their operation, share it with other approved devices on the network, analyse the data, and use the conclusions to update their course of action. The 4IR took “dumb” autonomous machines and made them “smart.” This step was essential to the development of technological marvels such as self-driving cars and trucks and next-generation industrial robotics.
During the December 2020 Sight Tech Global Conference which I referred to at the beginning of this article, Kai-Fu Lee, one of the world’s top scientists and top investors in the field of artificial intelligence and author of AI Superpowers: China Silicon Valley and the New World Order, observed that the current generation’s breakthrough in a type of AI called neural nets, sometimes referred to as deep learning, has enabled remarkable advances in areas such as computer vision and natural language processing. He went on to state that today’s AI capabilities are so great in this raw form that what is needed now are the engineers, and, most importantly, the data to make the most of all the possibilities. He explained:
… computers … can see and hear at the same level as people now. So with speech recognition for machine translation and for object recognition, AI is now at about the same level as humans. And AI is improving rapidly, based on its ability to take a huge amount of data whether it’s spoken language or recorded videos to really train itself to do better and better. So over time, it will be a better see-er and hear-er than humans.” Referring to what he calls the third wave of artificial intelligence as perception AI, Lee spoke of “… extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitizing the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can be analyzed and optimized by deep learning algorithms.
Nevertheless, Donovan notes that the phrase “industrial revolution” entered common usage long after the first industrial revolution had begun. He explains that Karl Marx’s collaborator on The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels, used the phrase in German in the 1840s, and the phrase was first used in English by Arnold Toynbee in 1882. This points to the fact that human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it, and the same has been true of 4IR, although we may have named it earlier than the first three because we are now more used to the idea of industrial revolutions than those who went before us were.
Klaus Schwab listed emerging 4IR technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing among the things that would drastically change our lives. Indeed, the lives of the peoples of Africa are already being touched by 4IR in ways that many of them are yet to perceive—their smart phones, with their “Location” function on, are beaming data about their movements to networks, and the data are then sold to high-tech transport companies desperate for information about traffic flow in cities; many of them unwittingly allow phone apps to access their microphones and cameras, with the real possibility of their conversations and actions being monitored; their emails and social media accounts are being monitored for information about them that is sold to marketers, advertisers and politicians who use it for “targeted messaging”; their faces are increasingly being scanned by cameras connected to face-recognition software ostensibly to enhance security, but with the real possibility of surveillance for purposes unknown to them.
Human beings often name something quite a while after they have experienced it
What is likely to be more alarming to many, however, is the fact that the combination of artificial intelligence and robotics supported by high-speed online connectivity is threatening to render jobless in a few years’ time those without requisite new skills.
In 2021, Rob Floyd informed us that the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), working with other institutional partners and nearly 40 data scientists and machine learning experts from around the globe, had completed the continent’s first “Artificial Intelligence Challenge”, ostensibly to help predict what infrastructure Africa will need in the future. According to Floyd, the exercise sought to identify machine learning tools and approaches that can inform policy decisions. The data scientists created models and designed methodologies that could help determine what infrastructure to build, where to build it, and what factors would have long-term economic impacts on the continent.
The fourth industrial revolution perpetuating western imperialism
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imperialism is “the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” The peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand first bore the brunt of Western imperialism in the form of colonialism. In The Invention of Africa, the Congolese philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe notes that “colonialism and colonization basically mean ‘organization’, ‘arrangement’. The two words derive from the Latin word colere, meaning to cultivate or to design.” He goes on to point out that the colonists (those settling a region), as well as the colonialists (those exploiting a territory by dominating a local majority) have all tended to organize and transform non-European areas into fundamentally European constructs.
Thus the politics, economics and systems of knowledge production in colonised territories were designed to imitate those of their Western colonisers. At independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, classical colonialism in Africa was replaced by neo-colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah, in the Introduction to his Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism, wrote: “THE neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage. …. The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”
In a chapter in The Disruptive Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology, Society and Beyond, Rashied and Bhamjee observe that industrialisation in 4IR could easily continue along the path of coloniality, in which the wealthy countries of the Northern hemisphere exploit the resources of countries in the South, but that it could also result in some of the wealthier countries of the Global South exploiting their poorer counterparts. During the Third Industrial Revolution, the inequality between the wealthy countries in the North and the poor ones in the South was regularly referred to as “the digital divide” — a divide that is already finding its way into 4IR. Thus as Donovan observes, there are many people who cannot afford a smart phone and a data plan to enjoy the benefits of 4IR, so that “The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”
Indeed, the Digital Economy Report 2019, released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, highlighted the disproportionate concentration of the digital economy in the United States and China, with the rest of the world trailing considerably, especially countries in Africa and Latin America. According to the Report, the United States and China accounted for 90 per cent of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms, over 75 per cent of the cloud computing market, 75 per cent of all patents related to blockchain technology, and 50 per cent of global spending on the Internet of Things.
“The democratisation of communication only applies to those above a certain income level.”
The report predicted that under current regulations and policies, this trajectory was likely to continue, contributing to increasing inequality. Yet, perhaps even more disturbing, is the digital divide right inside each of our countries in Africa, where the middle class enjoys virtually all the benefits of 4IR technologies that their counterparts in the affluent West and East enjoy, while the vast majority of their compatriots still grapple with lack of basic amenities such as access to piped water and electric power so that for them the issue of entering the digital world does not even arise. This latter digital divide significantly contributes to the perpetuation of the neo-colonial structures of domination for the benefit of the West and East.
Furthermore, in the edited volume The Fourth Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on Ethics, Geneviève Tanguay notes that disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves. For example, observes Tanguay, machine learning algorithms, although designed to help in problem-solving and decision-making, are vulnerable to biases and errors arising either from their creators or from the datasets used to train the systems themselves. Tanguay goes on to write that Amazon’s time- and resource-intensive effort to build an Artificial Intelligence (AI) recruitment tool was shot through with bias against women: engineers reportedly attributed this bias to the AI combing through CVs submitted to the company over a 10-year period, most of which were submitted by men.
Donovan points out that consumers can now boycott companies that do not agree with their political positions: apps even suggest alternative products with better scores. However, he goes on to caution that, “With an app, the opinion that works out the details is someone else’s opinion. …. If the shopper has different priorities to the app designer, they may spend in areas they do not actually support.” In addition, observes Donovan, although it is often claimed that the communication technologies have democratized communication, “Algorithms give preference to some social-media users. They also will censor others. Government censorship was commonplace 300 years ago. The private-sector equivalent is the demonetisation, downgrading or banning of published content.” Such censorship from the so-called big tech has escalated in the era of COVID-19, ostensibly in a bid to fight the virus through scientifically-based information.
Disregard for factors such as cultural identity and political convictions is often reflected in the very design of 4IR products themselves.
Moreover, Western cultures are putting non-Western cultures under great pressure to allow themselves to be assimilated in the global (read “largely Western”) cultural pool on the false presumption that they are inferior to Western cultures. Thus in a chapter in African Values, Ethics, and Technology, Maleselo John Lamola points out that as the peoples of Africa use 4IR technologies designed with a Western cultural bias, they are negatively affected at a fundamental level:
The culturally disadvantaged user is … simultaneously mesmerised and alienated by an object that imposes itself as instrumental for the efficiencies of her life; during the same experience she must align her way of doing things to the intricacies of the operation of this device or machine, as well as to the social role it is cast to serve in her life.
A crucial aspect of human welfare is personal liberty, entailing rights such as those of free association, movement, expression and privacy. Yet 4IR is eroding these very liberties through surveillance: smart phones now easily “hear” and “see” much more than their users intend or know. Besides, governments are consolidating various databases (such as those on health insurance, births and deaths, voters’ lists, and criminal records) into single super-databases, so that at the click of a button those with access can view a citizen’s information in astoundingly fine details that can be used against him or her. Thus in the run-up to the 2020 US elections, some US citizens wrote a parody of the famous American civil war-period song “His Truth Goes Marching On”, part of which stated:
Our right to privacy is gone, devices are the spies.
For government surveillance those are now the ears and eyes.
They use the corporate data, no subpoenas, no surprise,
And still we don’t catch on.
All this calls to mind George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, in which the single party, embodied by the mythical “Big Brother”, deploys 4IR-type technologies to monitor not only the people’s actions, but also their thoughts. The “inner party” consists of an elite which wields power by getting the “outer party” members to do their bidding. The party has a “thought police” which deploys all manner of 4IR type technologies to keep tabs on members of the outer party, including “telescreens” in homes and in public places that “listen to” and “see” all that the citizens say and do round the clock. The thought police are even able to read the thoughts of the members of the “outer party” and unleash punishments on them for any dissenting ideas. The “proles” (short for “proletariat”) are the illiterate masses, deeply despised by both inner and outer party members, and hardly have any interaction with the political process.
Furthermore, the party constantly re-writes history to suit its immediate purposes, fabricates narratives about consistent and abundant economic growth, about a mythical enemy of the state called Goldstein, and about never-ending war with this or that foreign power. It is working on a language called “Newspeak” to totally replace “Oldspeak” (English as we now know it, with a view to reducing the number of vocabulary in the language in order to eventually make it impossible for anyone to entertain or express critical thoughts against the regime. The party’s three slogans are: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.
Indeed, 4IR technologies now make a global dictatorship a much more conceivable possibility than it was for the first readers of 1984.
Kalundi Serumaga has illustrated how Africa’s land is “The Final Frontier of Global Capital”. This corroborates Mordecai Ogada’s assertion that “Conservation interests have built a cauldron into which the extremely wealthy are pouring startling amounts of money to subvert systems, grab lands, and plunder resources.” Yet the domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies that not only enhance the digitization of land records, but also detailed surveillance and high-tech warfare using 4IR-driven devices such as drones.
Which way forward?
We in Africa ought to urgently clarify our moral values, and based on them, formulate clear guidelines to restrain developers and marketers of 4IR technologies, serving the same old imperialists and some new ones, from dehumanising our people by manipulatively imposing technological innovations on them. Thus we ought to deeply reflect on the social visions of our forerunners such as that of Pixley ka Isaka Seme in his celebrated 1906 Columbia University speech titled “The Regeneration of Africa”. Seme spoke of a regenerated African civilization whose most essential departure “is that it shall be thoroughly spiritual and humanistic — indeed a regeneration moral and eternal.” As Lamola explains, for Seme, “the surrender of human agency to machines is … not fathomed. His was a novel conception of the possibility of the symbiosis of scientific progress with human spirituality.” Thus in my recent journal article on “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, I proposed four normative considerations that, in my view, ought to guide the initiatives of the peoples of Africa in their deployment of 4IR technologies, namely, inclusiveness to meet the needs of all human beings, affordability to bridge the digital divide, respect for the right to cultural identity to guard against cultural imperialism, and ethical orientation as the over-arching guide to building a truly human society.
The domination of Africa’s land that global capital seeks to achieve is being greatly aided by 4IR technologies.
In sum, as we the peoples of Africa enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we ought to do so in a manner that upholds our human dignity, our liberty as communities and individuals, and, as a result, our human agency. This will entail a conscious and consistent repudiation of Eurocentrism in the realm of technology in line with Frantz Fanon’s admonition in the final chapter of his The Wretched of the Earth, A book he diligently worked to complete during the last ten months of his life:
If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe …, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.
But if we want humanity to advance a step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries.