The unprecedented speed of technological change and its impact on every aspect of our lives was the theme of a recent Business Day Focus 4.0 event presented by Netstar, Absa, FedEx, Solid 8 and GoSolr.

The first of two panel discussions, moderated by Nastassia Arendse, focused on the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on business and logistics disruption.

Panel two looked at fostering green energy financing and the Just Energy Transition.

Arendse opened by asking where South Africa was in relation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which includes robotics, the Internet of Things, virtual reality and AI.

“We’re falling behind; the focus is not there,” said Patrick Devine, data security specialist at Solid8 Technologies. “Investment is drying and we aren’t competitive in many areas, though there are pockets of excellence that should be expanded, rather than slogans and high-profile exercises in futility.’’

Clifford de Wit, CTO at Altron Netstar, said we aren’t too far behind on the consumption side in the private sector, but “the problems we face are often quite different from the problems in a mature market.’’ We require better R&D.

Tando Mtintsilana, a professional in IT and telecoms, highlighted the “massive digital divide’’ between the private sector and ‘’the vast plains of rural SA reliant on government for service delivery’’. Yet, he said, there are a number of initiatives, such as the CSIR’s support co-funded by government of the mining industry in AI, digital twinning and virtual reality, to enhance safety, efficiency and employment in mining.

But we aren’t seeing an acceleration of AI in service delivery. For example, while private healthcare was leveraging AI in leaps and bounds, it remains a challenge in the public sector and rural areas. Among the barriers to AI entry for many firms was the cost of professional services.

The participation of women as well as youth training in new tech was also stressed.

De Wit observed the adoption of AI often starts with the coolness factor, ‘’sprinkling magic AI fairy dust on everything’’ without management understanding how the technology can practically help to run the business and serve customers better.

Devine advised: ‘’You’ve got to know what your outcome is before you go in and clean up what you’ve got.’’

In short, focus on the problems you have; don’t force fit technology into your environment.

On cybersecurity, Devine noted that the explosion of data had to be compartmentalised, with top secret stuff handled with extra care. Consumer trust is paramount, and good security practice is a big part of it.

Never be complacent about data security, De Wit advised. ‘’It’s an evolving discipline.’’

How hard is it to get the CFO to buy in to new tech?

Always take your CFO on the journey you’re on, explain why you need the money, said De Wit. With exco backing your tech strategy, investment became an easier conversation.

Is ChatGPT scary or exciting, Arendse asked. Devine was excited but equally nervous because it was being driven by tech entrepreneurs (and) there’s no controlling them. ‘’It can end up as a nightmare; it needs regulation.’’

Ethical considerations are important in embracing AI, warned Mtintsilana: Beware AI models that make financial decisions based on hidden code which could include, say, racial bias.

Actually, said De Wit, the challenge with AI is that it’s a fundamentally different way of creating software. Up to now, a human has determined the algorithm. With AI we create what today is a simple brain and feed it training data, unsure what it will do in all situations. Hence the need for guardrails.

AI is exciting, the panel agreed, but needs regulation. A number of countries are tightening controls without stifling innovation. The problem is technology always runs ahead of the checks and balances.

Panel 2. Green energy financing, ESG and the JET

GoSolr co-founder and CTO Patrick Narbel suggested in panel two that if ChatGPT were asked to summarize Just Energy Transition (JET) it would come out with: ‘’JET is about creating economic growth. It aims to create sustainable jobs and reduce carbon emissions at the same time – and quickly.’’

Going solar for purely sustainability goals would be unaffordable for ordinary consumers burdened by high and rising electricity prices.

The good news is SA is an attractive market for solar, the cost has dived and Eskom’s power cuts are driving solar demand.

New financial and government incentives are required to make solar accessible to everybody.

Absa renewable energy sector head Rashveer Manilal said JET comes down to two things: reskilling (away from the coal industry to renewables); and local production of solar technology.

FedEx MD for Sub-Saharan Africa operations Natasha Parmanand said clean energy and ESG (environment, social and governance) goals are integrated at the company. Globally, 60% of its consumers and 46% in SA, look at sustainability before buying, even if biodegradable packaging costs more. FedEx aims to be carbon neutral by 2040.

Absa has seen a burgeoning demand from previously CCTV installers wanting to get into installing solar. But there are lots of do’s and don’ts you should know about before installing solar if you want to be compliant and get insurance.

Government is also starting to look at incentives to spark solar growth, such as the Bounce Back scheme for funding at preferential rates, and the Agri Energy Fund from the Department of Agriculture offer good incentives to farmers to install solar.

All in all the issues raised in both panels are complex, none more so than AI, whose advance 1,000 tech leaders including Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk have said should be paused for six months due to its unknown power. SA’s challenge however is to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor.

ESG is not just about an outlay of capital but rather a route towards a sustainable future that requires a change of mindset, which more and more people are willing to do.

In renewable energy, there is, to quote GoSolr’s Narbel, a huge ray of sunshine coming!

If you missed the discussion, watch it here: