On Tuesday 27th February, we held our first Partners Forum event of 2018: an Africa Breakfast Club meeting held in collaboration with longstanding Partner, IBM Research-Africa. Featuring a presentation from Rashik Parmar, IBM Distinguished Engineer, the ABC focused on the possibilities created by ‘new collar’ work. This refers to jobs in emerging technologies such as cloud computing and data science that require specific skills and knowledge, but don’t necessarily require a four-year university degree.
First of all, Rashik noted that technological progress is a major force driving the growth of ‘new collar’ work. Hard technology essentially consists of transistors, which have grown exponentially since their invention in 1947. In 2012, it’s estimated that there were 1 billion transistors for every human alive. What makes transistors especially valuable is that they produce huge volumes of data. In 2017, for instance, it’s estimated that there was 20 extabytes of data worldwide, a figure that doubles every 18 months. Effectively harnessed, data sets available can help enable changes in a range of economic sectors.
Emerging technologies can create significant disruptions in services industries, which accounts for 70% of the UK’s economy and half of Africa’s output. The advance of technologies such as artificial intelligence can transform routine jobs such as shop assistants and taxi drivers by automating their manual, repetitive tasks. In fact, Rashik estimated that 50% of routine work will be disrupted in the next 15-20 years.
As a result, economies will need people with new skills and competences to exploit new technologies fully. Rashik argued that there will be huge demand for five new kinds of workers that he classified as ‘squirrels, owls, foxes, hawks, and weaver birds’. First of all, ‘data squirrels’ are people with the ability to identify existing data and understand what data sets can be used for different transformations. ‘Owls’ are people who can analyse data sets and examine how they can be used to solve different problems. Then, ‘foxes’ are people who think about the new algorithms needed to create new insights from data. ‘Weaver birds’ are analogous to data engineers who can imagine how to scale systems to serve our societies better. Finally, ‘hawks’ are people who examine the ethics and legality of data science.
The presentation sparked a lively discussion among our attendees whose comments focused on the infrastructural developments needed to harness emerging technologies in Africa, creating inclusive technology, and skills development. We’re especially grateful for the support of IBM Research-Africa whose support made this event possible.
This event forms part of the Partners Forum, a movement of organisations who are building a movement for science, tech and innovation in Africa.
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