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Thought Leadership: 4th Industrial Revolution and Digital Wellness - published 3 Nov 2021

Thought Leadership
4th Industrial Revolution, Facebook, and Digital Wellness


Mr. Monde Mawasha, CDC Chief Knowledge & Digital Officer
Analysing the 4th Industrial Revolution, Facebook, and Digital wellness:
Mr. Monde Mawasha, CDC’s Chief Knowledge & Digital Officer - ICT, Research and Strategy

Gqeberha, 03 November 2021 - In South Africa, we commonly refer to the 4th Industrial Revolution or 4IR in technological terms. The term was, however, coined by the World Economic Forum as an economic term to define the complexities of technology discontinuity in relation to how economies and societies ought to develop. It is a grave error to use 4IR as a technological term, which should refer to distinct technologies such as machine learning, additive manufacturing, internet of everything, etcetera, says Monde Mawasha, CDC’s Chief Knowledge & Digital Officer.

On the topic of technology, Facebook has been in the news lately, some may say “for the right reasons” to ensure accountability. The whistle-blower, Ms. Frances Haugen’s testimony, is a timely unadorned reminder that we are living through a major discontinuity in how we as humankind will, or should, organise our lives and livelihoods. The technology revolution will have real-life consequences for all of us. Haugen is calling for the regulatory oversight of entities like Facebook. The unfolding Facebook exposé involves understanding the underlying technology and its effect on society. It speaks to the technology, associated economic decisions and sociological outcomes. It is no accident that Apple and Google are driving the sociological effects relative to digital wellness.

The unfolding Facebook exposé involves understanding the underlying technology and its effect on society. It speaks to the technology, associated economic decisions and sociological outcomes. It is no accident that Apple and Google are driving the sociological effects relative to digital wellness.

The Technology

If technology experts were to drive 4IR, it would result in the paradoxical situation of economics being left to individuals who are trained in technology. It is paradoxical in that it may be a future truism. This paradox will even manifest in this narrative. For now, 4IR is better left to trained economists and sociologists.

Any IT department claiming to deliver 4IR must face pointed questions by its principals and board.

“Digital Discontinuity” is impelled by Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is made up of sub-technologies, most importantly, machine learning. At present, AI is still maturing and is at the centre of the Facebook story. There are two kinds of AI, namely narrow AI and general or full AI. Narrow AI performs specific tasks, has strong links to data science, and is developing at an exponential rate. Nearly all real-world manifestation of AI is categorised as narrow AI.

General or full AI is elusive. It is, for the most part, an academic concept linked to consciousness, brain science, and mathematical hurdles such as the effect of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

Many leading technology companies and technology-dependent companies (e.g., banks) are deploying narrow AI at an accelerated rate. These entities are aware of the ethical effects of AI. AI can have a bias from the outset or because of machine learning algorithms. Many of these entities have a Chief Data Scientist and team charged with preventing this occurrence. Examples of bias include, amongst others, racial bias, age bias and gender bias. Paraphrasing the neuroscientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett: “At present, AI is unintelligent. It is blind and dependent on initial conditions, its algorithm and what it ‘learns’ over time”. Hence, the adjective “narrow” is used to describe its deployment.

Based on the latter, it is incumbent on the organisation that the ethical challenges associated with AI are continually monitored and managed by qualified data scientists, with direct oversight by management. The regulatory oversight sought by Haugen would thus involve oversight of management regarding the decisions of data scientists. Regtech is an important subset of AI. It is expressly optimised for regulatory tasks such as Supply Chain Management (SCM), Finance and Compliance Functions. From this alone, one can easily see how a Chief Information Officer or Chief Digital Officer would have their hands full in the absence of claiming to drive 4IR.

Digital Wellness

Digital wellness is based on a growing body of research that shows the physiological importance of having time to reflect and physically interact with others away from the digital world.

We have witnessed numerous breakthroughs in brain physiology over the last two decades. On one end, the plasticity of the brain has been shown to last the human life span. Research has shown that pre-sixteen teenagers are particularly vulnerable to media stereotyping and social engineering. Common wisdom had it that after a certain age, humans lose more brain function than they gain. However, it is proven that neuroplasticity including re-assignment tasks to new brain areas occur even in old age.

Empathy is a fundamental human trait. In fact, it is so fundamental that our brains have a set way of learning empathy by feeling what another human being may be feeling. Thus, it is particularly important that the developing brains of teenagers acquire this trait through quiet, reflective moments. If the brain is consistently occupied and consumed by the noise of social media, this may impede the acquisition of empathy.

Technology companies are creating space to allow for the normal development of our brains through devices that allow for down- or away time. An example of this is smartphone functionality that emits less blue spectrum of light at night when one is sleeping. The blue spectrum of light tends to interfere with rest and sleep. At a societal level, it must be acknowledged that social media and application-driven AI can impact emotional, physical, and cognitive wellness. Policies need to be instituted to mitigate the most grievous effects of technology. This is where ethical considerations and AI meet.

The Digital Society and Government

These ethical considerations indicate that government will need to be involved in facilitating AI. The crafting of specific legislation may be required to ensure the proper oversight and utilisation of AI, while also ensuring the facilitation of AI to drive technology and a digital economy.

Social media giants like Facebook and Google’s YouTube have employed psychology experts to construct algorithms based on the theory of behaviourism to increase traffic to their platforms. Traffic translates to value (profit) through advertisements. So, if we are to look at the theory of behaviourism, consumers of content need to be attracted to digital content that brings the most advertising revenue. This results in the “herding” of consumers to specific content, and not necessarily the content that they were looking for. The content with the most advertising hit rates is, according to Jaron Lanier of Microsoft, “content that has the most emotional baggage”. Usually, the latter would evoke emotions such as anger, jealousy, etcetera. This does not bode well for the digital society and digital wellness.

The current information economy is creating asymmetries that are weighed in favour of technology giants at the expense of: (a) government regulation, (b) young minds, (c) user-generated data and (d) a society based on positive emotions such as compassion, respect, love, etcetera.

According to Jaron Lanier and Glen Weyl, this asymmetry of power is created using fast-changing algorithms that drive AI. The two experts continue to assert that this fast-changing and dynamic digital marketplace is based on the reality that these tech giants use content provided by users “for free”.

Governments have tried to use privacy legislation to control this asymmetry. The European Union (EU) has implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy legislation and South Africa has implemented the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA). However, Lanier and Weyl point out that this legislation lacks the flexibility needed to counteract the dynamism of AI.

Thus, the creation of mediators that resemble the Reserve Bank will control the trade on data and ensure that data provenance is not lost and that owners are remunerated for the use of their data. This will need to be enabled by legislation, over and above privacy legislation. The use of technologies such as Blockchain to identify and stamp data to ensure provenance and assure that the data owner is remunerated is an example of the implementation of this mediation, which Lanier and Weyl term Mediator of Individual’s Data. To unshackle itself and create capacity within itself to nurture the information economy, government should consider a strong and swift shift toward RegTech and Cryptography (Blockchain). If a focused drive is established to create a robust technology platform for Supply Chain Management in government, billions could be released from the clutches of corruption into our economy.

Data is king and AI is driven by data. The digitalisation of government through AI can help to ensure greater transparency in governance along with the right capabilities to provide objective oversight in regard to misappropriation, maladministration and malfeasance.

Lastly, AI innovation can be supported through education and training. South Africa has several Centres of Excellence for AI. An AI curriculum that provides the necessary mathematics and computing skills can target these areas. Government must act swiftly at an intrinsic level to address these challenges. Advisory committees are simply not enough, concludes Mawasha

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