Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Digital Economy: brief by Department of Science and Technology

Science and Technology

30 May 2018
Chairperson: Ms L Maseko (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology briefed the Committee on its position on the 4th Industrial Revolution and the Digital Economy. Also, on the agenda was the convergence of digital technologies which included autonomous robots, Cybersecurity and the Industrial Internet of Things. The risks regarding companies like Uber, Airbnb and Netflix were explained, and the current efforts of the Department and its entities were reported on.

Members asked if there was a source document that provided more information than the slides from the presentation; which departments were part of the collaborative process, and how close was this relationship; if the Department or the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research made any input into the Cybersecurity Bill process; the possibilities of new jobs within this revolution; if the Department had been approached about the Commission and if yes, how far had discussions progressed about this; re-skilling in the schooling system; the production of smart prosthetics, especially because of the unaffordability of the prosthetics; if the Department engaged with the Department of Health about scientific innovations; and how would humans react to all of this

Meeting report

The Chairperson thanked Members for their participation in the National Research Foundation Amendment Bill that was adopted by the House and had gone to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). She expressed her disappointment in the stance of the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) on the Bill but understood the Party’s position. The African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA) and all other Parties who supported the Bill were thanked. She thanked the Director-General (DG) Dr Phillip Mjwara and Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director-General (DDG), both from the Department of Science and Technology, and all others who were involved with the processes of the Bill. It was important to speak with the Chairperson of the NCOP so that the Bill was not placed last in their cluster. The concern was that there was a duplication of processes. The meeting was handed over to the DST for the briefing on the digital economy and the next Industrial and Social Revolution.

Briefing by Department of Science and Technology on the Next Industrial and Social Revolution

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General (DG): Department of Science and Technology (DST) said the report would talk about the emerging position of the Department. He referred to slide three which illustrated the convergence of digital technologies which included autonomous robots, Cybersecurity and the Industrial Internet of Things. The Next Transformation of economies and societies was all about convergence and the convergence of the digital with the physical and biological. The ICT sector represented the constantly evolving fabric underpinning Digitalisation. The components in the digitalisation process were Connectivity; Enabling Technology; Online Services; Content and the User Interface. Innovation in the ICT sector enabled multiple industries.

Some examples of the risks of increased digitalisation were:

  • Companies like Uber, the world’s largest taxi company;
  • Airbnb – the world’s largest accommodation provider;
  • Alibaba – the world’s most valuable retailer;
  • Facebook – the most popular media owner;
  • Netflix – the world’s largest movie house and
  • Apple; Google – the world’s largest software vendors.

Current efforts by the DST and its entities:

  • A Product Lifecycle Management platform;
  • Aeroswift – confluence of Photonics and Additive Manufacturing capabilities;
  • ICT RDI (Research Development and Innovation) Roadmap (2013);
  • GoMetro;
  • Nanotechnology;
  • Biological technologies;
  • Mobile Laboratory Southern Africa;
  • Building Capabilities in Cyber/Information security; and
  • Converging Technologies Platform

On skills and the Accelerated Capacity Building in Data Science (DSIDE)

The DG said that since 2014, there have been 149 trainees. 88% were black, 31% were female. 40 plus were employed at financial, ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and energy companies. The Targets for 2018/19 and 2019/20 were 60 and 70 trainees respectively.

National e-Science and Data Science Training Initiatives

  • National e-Research Support Programme
  • -           Purpose: Provide research grants for Cyberinfrastructure (CI) related

     R&D to promote the advancement of the underpinning disciplines and

     technologies (i.e. computational science; data science; computer

     science; computers, network & storage technologies).      

  • Impact: Build and support the e-research capability pipeline in the

           country as an enabler for e-research; will commence in Q1 of 2018/19.

Conclusion – South Africa RDI readiness

  • ICT roadmap included trust and security → and integrated into country strategy → strategic focus was on the development of indigenous capabilities.
  • Integration into global production and supply chains
  • Work was underway on the impact on wealth, incomes and jobs
  • International partnerships at the individual technology levels and increasingly at the convergence level (nascent)
  • Notable private sector initiatives and
  • As always, small and fragile community in an environment of low investment.

(See attached document Next Industrial and Social Revolution)

Dr A Lotriet (DA) asked if there were a source document that provided more information than the slides from the presentation.

The DG said the Department did not have a source document. The Minister had asked the Department to compile a document which had to be completed by the end of the month. This document would be forwarded to the Committee on completion.

With regard to collaboration with other departments, the Chairperson asked which departments were part of the collaborative process, and how close was this relationship. Where it was spoken about a notable private sector initiative, how close was this collaboration?

Dr Lotriet asked to what extent the DST was working with the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services because this was often the area where there was an overlap between broadband and cellular communications.

The DG said that according to his knowledge, it had been decided that the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) would be convening government departments. These three departments – including the Department of Trade and Industry - were earmarked as those who had to develop a concept paper. The terms of reference have been developed for the council, and at the first and only meeting that was held so far, the three departments just took stock of what everyone was doing and shared what they were doing like providing the infrastructure that would help drive the internet and broadband issues; the DTI shared what they were doing from the manufacturing perspective.  There were many institutions that came to the initial workshop and the departments got to know some of the initiatives driven by the private sector companies like Telkom. Companies like Discovery could afford to know what was happening globally.  The three key departments could not as yet claim to have a full view of what was happening in the private sector, but a few initiatives were known.

In terms of Cybersecurity, the bill was now before the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development; Dr Lotriet asked if the Department or the CSIR made any input into that because this was now the interesting pieces of legislation that had to be processed.

Mr N Koornhof (ANC) said that with regard to Cybersecurity, it has been said that South Africa’s legislation was about 30 years behind that of the rest of the world. The Cybersecurity legislation was with the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. He asked if the DST felt that this would at least reduce the gap and take this country at least 10 years behind the rest of the world. He urged the Department to look at the legislation on Cybersecurity.

The DG said that the Department was involved in the Cybersecurity Bill at the level of the Working Committee that was set up by colleagues in the DTPS. There was some uncertainty about whether the Bill was forward looking. This was a very valid question because it brought to mind that the Cyber self-driven car has killed people in California. This was a very complex situation because who was ultimately to blame. He had not seen the Bill as yet. The legislation had to be worked through very carefully. Dr Daniel Visser, would deal with this matter.

Dr Daniel Visser, Research and Development Strategy Manager: DST, said the emotional and intuitive sides were irreplaceable. The Department had made a significant input from a policy support side into the legislative process regarding the Cybersecurity Bill. It was critical that this country created a sovereign capability around cybersecurity as it moved from this heavily digitised environment.

Dr Lotriet referred to page 16 of the presentation where ‘the HSRC and looking at the impact of jobs’ was spoken about and asked about the possibilities of new jobs within this revolution because it was not only in terms of the data or science but also jobs in the more creative fields.

The DG said that the Department was happy to provide a detailed answer. This was what the Inter-Departmental team had been asked to develop.

Ms C King (DA) said in one of the documents that she had read there was a speech by the President wherein he said that this year would be looking at the Digital Industrial Revolution Commission. She asked if the Department had been approached about this Commission and if yes, how far had discussions been had about this.

The DG said that the Minister was part of the Commission hence this secured the Department’s involvement in the process.

Ms King said one could not talk about future skills when it came to higher education or post graduate education. It should have been started already at basic education level. She asked if the Department had been in discussions with the Minister of Basic Education around looking at what Dr Lotriet had said about other skills or re-skilling in the schooling system especially because she felt the DST should be hands-on with regard to this.

The DG said that he had an engagement with a number of Deans from universities. They had already started looking at new ways of teaching Data Science and the new curricula that was needed. They were also looking at the CHE (Commission for Higher Education) with regard to the new curricula for post graduate level studies in data science and accreditation of staff. However, he was not aware of such movement at the Basic Education level.

Dr Visser said that this was part of the HSRC study that was going to be done and has been part of the BRICS country study that has been done. The Department of Basic Education has put in three new programs which looked at future skills.

Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) enquired about the production of smart prosthetics, especially because of the unaffordability of the prosthetics.

The DG said he agreed that the costs would increase more with SMART prosthetics. Their suggestion was to tag into the development of things locally as quickly as was possible and as had already been indicated with the Converging Technologies platform, if it were known that this was a big challenge in South Africa one would know that this would not cost as much if produced locally.
With regard to the issue of new jobs, this would be done as part of the Inter-governmental process. What was known was that if one moved into higher valued products, staff had to be trained appropriately.  

Dr Visser, with regard to the human aspect, said the Department had developed a product called Ambiflow which measured foetal blood flow. It was a lot cheaper than ultrasound and could be done in a clinic. Currently two trials had been completed in Pretoria, and five other clinics were in process across South Africa. What was found was that now people did not have to go to central facilities to have ultrasound done. As one went into the Fourth Industrial Revolution one had to consider how to make things easier for all people and not just a few.

Dr Thembekwayo asked if the DST engaged with the Department of Health about scientific innovations.

The DG said that the Department had a programme on medical diagnostic therapy. The CSIR had communicated to the Department that they had developed a point of care with a relatively cheaper set of diagnostics. The issue was just how to roll this out and take this forward.

Mr Koornhof asked how humans would react to all of this? He asked further if any studies had been done on how humans would react to this, especially in developing countries like South Africa. Studies like these – if done – could then be shared with SADEC (Southern African Development Community) and other countries in Africa.

The DG said that each country looked at things differently in relation to the challenges that they had. The Fourth Industrial Revolution would take different forms in the different countries, and each country would have to be aware of their specific challenges and how they were going to deal with them.

Mr Koornhof said one does not want to be Japan; we did not want to not do the work, but the problem was that as humans were still to do the job then one had to remain competitive. Was it possible to have a human driven workforce instead of robots but still remain competitive and affordable?

The Chairperson said that it was good that the Minister of the Department of Science and Technology had been identified as one of the five core ministers.

The meeting was adjourned.

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