British billionaire and Virgin Atlantic chairman Sir Richard Branson has warned against the fourth industrial revolution – in which disruptive technologies and trends including robotics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the way we live and work.
Branson, who on Thursday hosted the ‘Business Is An Adventure’ event in Johannesburg, in partnership with Investec, said that while humanity is likely to continue to benefit from the evolution of technology, it will likely lead to job losses.
Branson was speaking as part of a panel which also featured Fani Titi, joint chief executive at Investec, and Kim Reid, CEO and founder of Takealot.com.
Reid told the audience that AI is going to be a game changer. He said that businesses need to get a grip on data. “Businesses with more data will fare better than businesses without – because that data fuels machine learning and AI,” he said.
And while Branson said that he agreed with Reid, “we need to deal with the effects of AI on people,” he said. “I think people will benefit from health, education, safety in cars, and many other things. There is the danger that it is going to cost jobs.
“Companies and governments have to start thinking of, if AI comes in, how are we going to make sure that people are employed. You could argue that new jobs will be created in different areas, but I just don’t think there is going to be enough new areas, and therefore we need to think about that,” Branson said.
In a business environment, Titi said that both people and technology are crucial to the overall outcome. He said that what Investec does as a business is not unique. “What makes the difference for us, is how we do what we do and the experience we give to our clients, and the level of trust and partnership we can bring.”
He said that issues of money and investment – “lending money over a period of 10/15/20 years means that you need more than just data.
“Our view is that the choice between on the one had – human connection, and on the other, technology or data, that is a false choice. We believe in doing both. We believe we can be high touch on the one hand, and high tech.
“We believe that through human connection, we can do more for our clients.”
He said that people can become overwhelmed with data. The job of humans is to de-clutter that data through human connection, to make sense of it.
The robots are coming
Reid said that technology is coming, “whether we like it or not”. He called on the government to address the current standard of education, and that particular focus needs to be placed on maths and science.
Branson said that it’s not just up to government to create better environments. He said that businesses need to draw a circle around themselves – “and then those circles will start overlapping and you can start working with neighbouring businesses to lift up the local community”.
He joked that we would have left school at the age of 14 if maths had been the number one priority at school, adding that only 10% of the population are actually cut out for maths and science.
“For the vast majority of kids at school, we need to try make school a place where people enjoy, where they can be in touch with nature, in touch with the environment, a whole lot of different areas. And also where you can bring out the individual kids passions. So it is maths and science, but for the other 90%, we should be allowed to do other things.”
“I think slightly differently,” countered Reid. “I think everyone can learn maths and science. I think it’s about the quality of teachers.”
Titi said: “Having taught mathematics at university, I do agree that we complicate studying a lot. I think that in the new age we are in, we have got to make technology more accessible, and use the power of the internet to connect people.”