Sixty four years after George Devol built the first robot, the machines have morphed into highly efficient human aids. With an exactness and meticulousness lacking in most humans, present day robots are capable of carrying out complex medical surgeries, serving in diverse levels of the production and manufacturing industry and are generally the preferred choice for cyclic actions.
There are robots designed to detonate bombs, withstand extreme substances and conditions that would otherwise be toxic to humans, robotic technology which aids people who have lost body parts and the actual humanoids which look like and can imitate human actions.
But the greatest attention in recent years has been on the deduction that increased robot activity would mean decreased human necessity. There have been augmented fears about the possibility of the machines ridding humans of their jobs and the question “Will a robot take my job?” has been uniquely googled around 25,520 times between May 2017 and April 2018.
Earlier in 2018, the Amazon Go store opened at the headquarters of the company in Seattle. A convenience store with a difference, the Amazon Go is checkout free, customers walk in, pick what they want and walk out without having to checkout eliminating the extensive queues.
How does this concern us?
As it currently stands, about 60,000 robots are imported into Africa every year. In Botswana, the machines aid in mining attaining feats generally impossible by humans, and in Kinshasa, giant solar powered robots control traffic eliminating the need for human wardens.
A study done by the World Bank revealed that 85% of jobs in Ethiopia are at risk of being automated from a pure technological viewpoint, the highest proportion of any country globally. The study also cited that more than 50% of available jobs in Angola, Mauritius, South Africa and Nigeria are also at stake.
The susceptibility of these jobs are tied to their being low skilled, especially in the areas of agriculture which for example is the biggest employer in Ethiopia and also a field in which robots have proved more efficient than manpower.
But with the unemployment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa presently edging to 7.2%, one can only wonder how catastrophic these figures will be by the advent of heightened automation. In Nigeria, 18.8% of the population are unwaged and an alarming 26.7% are jobless in South Africa.
Giant Robot controlling traffic in Kinshasa, Congo.
As robots get cheaper, people get more expensive.
The Overseas Development Institute disclosed that in the next 15 to 20 years, robots in the U.S. are actually going to become much cheaper than Kenyan labor. Particularly in the furniture manufacturing industry. So this means that around 2033, American companies will find it much more profitable to re-shore production back. Which means essentially get all the jobs and production back from the developing countries to the U.S. And that obviously can have very significantly negative effects for jobs in Africa.
What we can do?
On a global scale, the advent of robots arrival on the continent is still quite in it’s embryonic stages. While the US has 93 robot units per 10,000 workers and Japan has 213, the regional average in Africa is at 2 robots per 100,000 workers. Researchers do agree that due to the emergent nature of majority of African countries, widespread automation might take a while but they also agree that it will happen.
Our best bet currently is to capitalize on skilled jobs which are more difficult to automate. Jobs that foster originality, social and creative intelligence, perception of irregular spaces and manipulation will stand the test of time. More importantly, we need to expend more in tech, science and a robust knowledge of digital media will go a long way in ensuring we are abreast with a refining world.
What we are doing?
In Kenya, The Funkidz furniture factory is towing a different path for their industry, automated saws cut perfect templates using computer-aided designs, overseen by skilled programmers and operators. This is an intelligent blend of local exportation and technological innovation.
There is Favour Ori of FavCode54 whose company is teaching Africans to code for free and linking them up with industry professionals.
The first Android citizen in history, Sophia attended Egypt’s Creative Industry Summit from April 17 to 18, this means she came to Africa. The humanoid who is able to carry out non scripted conversations, maintain eye contact with her subjects recently spoke at the UN then at Davos and is I believe symbolic of a future that is imminent.
For now the only question on our lips is not if the robots are coming, it is when, it is asking in all frankness; how much time do we have?