Botswana’s Quest for Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), A Delusion of Grandeur?

For Botswana to achieve Vision2036, policymakers need to redress  digital inequality that plagues the country.

This is by far the most pressing issue for the country in the fast-changing global environment. Yet, this is not addressed in discourse of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) like so many other countries drinking the World Economic Forum (WEF) “Kool-Aid” dominating policy discussions.

Developing economies, especially amongst African countries, are buying into the WEF’s policy narrative on the adoption of 4IR models and the belief in the need to embrace Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI developments are, of course, significant but the data and analysis often reflects the priorities and developments of far more mature markets, while neglecting local challenges.

Botswana happens to be one of the countries caught by the hype. Yet, more than half the population in Botswana is still without Internet connection; and marginalised rural communities are often the last to gain access. According to the findings of the After-Access ICT survey conducted by Research ICT Africa, only 9% of Batswana use the internet. Most internet users are found in urban areas, with most people outside the cities not having access to internet, let alone a broadband connection. Among the few households with an internet connection, the most-used type of internet connection is mobile 3G (44.4%), followed by ISDN dial-up (23.5%) and wireless broadband (17.3%). ADSL is used by only 6.2% of households who have an internet connection.

To participate online, people need to be connected. Even when people are connected, the reality in the region is that it is often slow or restricted, creating a ‘poor Internet for poor people in Africa’. And that is just on the technical side.  Several governments are censoring or even shutting down the internet to control or suppress freedom of speech and access to information. This has long term impacts on the digital economy and fundamental human rights.

AI has evolved as a main component of the 4IR in Africa. The concept is not new. AI in different forms has existed for over 60 years. What is different now, as technology advances every day, is the increasing application of AI in the automation of jobs traditionally performed by humans. Thus, fueling concerns about the robots coming to take jobs.

However, promising economic growth and job creation, the dominant narrative is that AI will bring a wave of innovation in various sectors of the country’s economy.

While at times controversial, across the border, South Africa has implemented sophisticated 4IR technologies. However, the adoption of proposed 4IR models and policies by the Government designed by WEF partner consultants (Accenture), do not match the real conditions of the country. There is a lack of sufficient consideration for challenges in achieving competitive markets, democratic processes, effective institutions, education and health systems – assumed conditions in much global modelling for developing countries.

Instead of copying South Africa or WEF blueprints, Botswana should develop its own policies on its digital future that are appropriate to the conditions within the country. The prospects of the government implementing 4IR policies in Botswana should also spur people to start asking fundamental questions about how the global market power of big tech corporates and their dominance is likely to impact on their human rights, data privacy and safety.

These will need to be at the core of emerging policies and practices in Botswana if the country is to progress towards achieving the aspirations of Vision 2036 and the NDP. At the core of this, is maintaining a stable democracy, economy and creating a level playing field for political discourse. Otherwise these envisaged policies and models are unlikely to contribute to the economic growth, job creation and bridging digital divides it alludes to.

The surprising link between Revolutions and Economic History

Water and steam power were used to mechanise production in the First Industrial Revolution. The Second Revolution mainly used electric power to create mass production. The Third Industrial Revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterised by a plethora of new technologies, such as AI, machine learning, cloud computing, block chains, sensors and more, which are being applied across business and social processes leading to fundamental structural changes in how we live and work. The claim, according to the WEF, is that the difference with 4IR is how technologies are merging digital and physical worlds.

The existing evidence suggests that whilst “revolutions” are futuristic, with clear ideas to capture the essence of change, in reality these economic revolutions have built on what has existed for many years – and it is only when they’re reconfigured together to meet specific needs that they bring fundamental change.

With respect to 4IR, Prof Klaus Schwab claims, “…that technology and digitization will revolutionize everything, making the overused and often ill-used adage ‘this time is different’ apt. Simply put, major technological innovations are on the brink of fueling momentous change throughout the world – inevitably so” (Schwab, 2016, section 1.2; see also Schwab, 2015). In essence the whole structure of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is driven by this same fallacy.

A Belief that 4IR Technology will Change the World

The government needs to understand that technology itself does not change anything. Technology is designed by people to serve very specific interests and needs, and it is this that changes the world, and not the technology. Deterministic approaches toward notions of the 4IR are very likely to present a false narrative.

In this context, most things associated with the so called 4IR actually seem to be extensions of ideas that existed very much earlier. The truth of the matter is that the same interests underlying 4IR, by and large, are the same as those driving the existing economic, social and political uses of technology. It is these interests, rather than the 4IR itself, that are of most importance.

Yet the government is allured by the clarion call of the WEF, which is promoting a problematic notion of frontier technology – held high by global corporations and the WEF elites – to describe and justify the entirety of the contemporary world and their attempts to change it for the better. Hypothetically, drawing a conclusion to the WEF‘s 4IR frameworks, they are either pushing the 4IR narrative in the interests of the elite rich and powerful to make them even more richer or are simply concerned about empowering and serving the interest of the poor and marginalised. However, humanity still has choices to determine what’s right and wrong, regardless of the stronger agendas of the powerful global players.

Address the Redistribution Effects

Botswana’s Governance AI readiness score sits at around 3.21, compared to South Africa at 5.15 (in the not unproblematic  2019 Government AI Readiness Index produced by Oxford Insights and IDRC). This is a timely reminder of the ongoing inequality around affordable access to the internet. Internet penetration in Botswana is below the critical mass 20% believed to be necessary to enjoy the network effects associated with broadband adoption and economic growth.

This highlights a number of key areas for the government to invest in if Botswana is to be better prepared for the AI revolution. These include a clear focus on bridging the digital gap, skills training, affordable access and data infrastructure. Without government focus and investment, the digital skills gap will continue to grow and inequality spiral.

To address this, policymakers should first substantiate how AI can bear tangible outcomes. AI promised to solve some of the world’s greatest problems, including fixing poor access to healthcare and education. Yet these types of benefits should be clearly articulated, and contextualised, in order to encourage a more realistic outlook on AI’s potential. For example, what is the preparedness of the Botswana government to use AI in the delivery of public services when they’re struggling with basic internet connection?

Finally, amidst all the hype of AI, there is a disquieting murmur about the negative outcomes of AI. These include job loss, governance and ethical issues. Policymakers must realise that these apprehensions are valid and require much-needed attention. In seeking to address the inherent inequalities, policymakers should identify those excluded from the internet and create a strategy to integrate them into the digital economy to be equal players.

Conclusion

The challenge is that those that embrace the aspirations of doing good to change the world through the 4IR may indeed be worth praising, but they want to walk before they can crawl. The interests of those driving the narrative of these technologies may not be entirely geared towards changing the well-being of our society into an equal living standard, but risk being dominated by profit-seeking motives at the expense of public goods.

This is the right time to reflect once more on the true meaning of the 4IR and its ideas. As policymakers, we should formulate policies that empower poor and marginalised people to create a world that is better for our future generations, even at the expense of popular priorities.

This post was written by Oarabile Mudongo, Research Fellow at Research ICT Africa.

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