The ethics and social impact of technology

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.


"We need to empower our students with both technological and social skills," said Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg at the recent USAf-hosted National Higher Education Conference.

Prof Marwala is an expert on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. About 20 years ago he did his engineering PhD at the University of Cambridge on artificial intelligence. In April, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed him as his deputy chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a group of 30 tasked with identifying policies, strategies and actions to make South Africa globally competitive.

So what are these technologies? Prof Marwala said besides those of cyber space such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and augmented reality, there were also "developments in the physical space'' such as 3D printing.

"All these things will change the nature of higher education," said Prof Marwala.

The next speaker, Prof Derrick Swartz, former vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela University, continued the light-hearted tone punctuating the session by picking up on Prof Marwala's comment about the cellphone study: "By the way, I switched off my cellphone, Tshilidzi , so I'm not sure if this a different personality speaking here about questions of ethics".

He said if Prof Marwala was an optimist of the future, he was something between a sceptic and a realist, "maybe a critical realist".

How would we want the new technologies to solve our "socially-inclined" problems?

Prof Swartz said he thought the starting point for a discussion on this topic was to challenge these technologies in terms of their impact in tackling the problems we, as human beings, wanted them to resolve.

He identified challenges these technologies needed to be tested against, in terms of how they would help us:

  • deal with "the spectre" of social inequality, poverty and unemployment;
  • create "future human societies in a world with diminishing resources";
  • address ecological and climate destabilisation;
  • achieve sustainable and more proportionate human consumption and production; and
  • construct alternative economic and social systems in harmony with the earth's metabolic and ecological systems.

Other speakers included Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, Prof Yunus Ballim and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Sol Plaatje University,

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