The coming jobs drought in Africa as robotics rules


Econet Wireless founder Strive Masiyiwa: He says emergent tech tools should worry economies and companies. file photo | nmg

Developed and emerging economies are keen on technology to drive development. The last two decades of mobile money development in Kenya have provided evidence to support this assertion.

However, experts are now warning that emerging technologies could pose serious threats for African countries that do not urgently develop the policies to adapt to a fast-changing world.

Research shows that frontier technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics have the potential to quickly turn upside down the structure of societies.

“We have extraordinary new technologies coming through. What we have seen in mobile technologies and in fintech today is nothing compared to what is coming. We think that the effects of technologies like artificial intelligence are going to be so profound they can dislocate even our political systems,” said Zimbabwean telecoms mogul Strive Masiyiwa in a Nairobi forum last week.

The labour market comes into question. For the last century, globalisation has been partly driven by the search for cheap human labour.

American and European firms shifted production to Asia in search of cheap labour and African countries have been counting on a similar shift to this continent to drive the next phase of their development.

However, new technologies have the potential to undercut these expectations. Companies in the developed world are increasingly relying on robotics and AI for production and supply chains. This means job cuts across the board.

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In the United States, data shows that 85 per cent of job losses between years 2000 and 2010 were attributable to automation.

This also means that Western multinationals may opt to keep production in their home countries rather than outsourcing them to poorer regions.

Essentially this would mean a shifting of production back to the developed world.

“This application of automation, it is feared, will undercut the comparative advantage in low skilled labour production that a lot of developing countries rely on as a pathway to economic development. 3D printing can be used to create discrete parts of computers, aeroplanes, automotives and other types of products. This localisation of hardware production is also seen as a threat to industries that some East and Southeast Asian economies used to grow their economy,” notes the Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development, a newly created body of which Masiyiwa is a member.

But changes will happen beyond the labour market. Simple communication technologies are changing the way governments interact with citizens, forcing them, in many cases, to be more reactive than they have been in the past.

Students of history will point out that technology has always disrupted labour and that markets have adapted as freed up production was redirected. However, what concerns analysts is the speed at which the projected changes will take place.

McKinsey estimates that AI alone could change society “10 times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3,000 times the impact of the industrial revolution.”

A lot of emergent technology is being crafted to address the problems of the developed world. Additionally, developing nations themselves may not have the capacity or see the need to invest in these technologies.

“Lower labour costs in many developing countries mean that investments in job replacing technologies will be lower,” writes University of Cape Town professor, Ralph Hamann.

The result is that technologies developed in rich countries will have, ingrained in them, biases towards those nations.

For example, a lot of speech recognition software will have trouble adapting to African accents. Such developed-world biases could have far wider-reaching implications in different contexts.

“There is a lot of fear around. As a guidance for public policy-making that is a very bad principle,” said Stefan Dercon, a University of Oxford professor who is also part of the Commission on Technology and Inclusive Development.