By Dr. Ian Clarke
Society and mankind have gone through many transitions over the years. Thousands of years ago most people were hunter-gatherers, then slowly human beings began to domesticate animals, to till the land and plant crops, in what became known as the agricultural revolution.
For centuries the vast majority of people worked on the land, much as peasant farmers do in Uganda today. Then came the industrial revolution when machines such as steam engines were invented which did the work for us.
These machines augmented the power of man, so that he no longer depended solely on his own muscle power, but was able to use mechanical engineering to generate even more power than he could harness through the use of domesticated animals.
In the industrial revolution of last century, with the invention of the steam engine, the internal combustion engine and the factory production line, the pattern of labour changed. Tractors put peasants out of work, but as people were no longer needed to work the land, they were needed on factory production lines.
Henry Ford led the way with the invention of the Model T Ford, which was assembled on a production line, which created jobs for the former farmers. These factory workers were paid handsomely because Henry Ford used the principle that if they earned enough, they could become his customers, and buy his cars.
This became a kind of golden age for blue-collar workers, working in steel mills, spinning mills, the auto industry, and factories producing consumer goods. Ordinary workers were earning enough money to spend on consumer goods, and it became a virtuous cycle with the rise of the middle class.
In the midst of this golden era, a shop owner by the name of Sam Walton saw the opportunity in buying up certain goods cheaply, merchandising them in large stores (which became known as Walmart) and selling them at cut prices.
The end result was the growth of the supermarket and hypermarket, in which consumers expected cheaper and cheaper prices. Now the western workers were paid too much to produce such goods cheaply, so wholesale buyers turned increasingly to the East, to places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and China to produce goods at prices the American middle classes would pay.
The result of this was that manufacturing jobs shifted, with factories in industrialized nations closing down and the development of the rust belt. As this happened, another revolution was taking shape: the technology revolution.
First there was Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, with the production of the personal computer and software made simple. Then there was the internet, and Moor’s Law, with the increasing speeds and decreasing cost of computing.
Then came mobile phones, tablets and smart phones. Most recently there has been big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The result of the tech revolution has been another shift in the labour market; now the threat is no longer outsourcing of factories and jobs to cheaper labour, but automation.
Whole factories are being operated by robots, with no human-beings involved. Factory jobs which first migrated to low cost environments, have now been automated. All of this change creates uncertainty, and as human beings we don’t like change, uncertainty and insecurity.
In Uganda we have not had to face these changes, because we still practice the same type of agriculture, which has been carried out for generations. This makes me wonder if the proliferation of land disputes is because people don’t want to change and make way for commercial farming.
However, the tech revolution has brought benefits to Uganda in the areas of communication, banking and transport, since we have been able to leapfrog landlines and parachute directly into data and internet age, with smartphones, mobile money and other useful applications such as Uber and Taxify.
As we increase our use of artificial intelligence, in which computers teach themselves, we will see increasingly rapid changes in technology and the labour market. Traditionally computer programmers spend thousands of hours writing millions of lines of code, which instruct computers what to do.
Now we can feed computers massive amounts of data and give them instructions as to what we want and they will trawl through the data until they find the optimal way of doing it. There is a computer program, which has been written in Stanford University, which can recognize skin cancer better than the top dermatologists.
A skin specialist may have seen hundreds, or even thousands of forms of skin cancer, but a computer can process millions of images of skin cancer, comparing them in the finest detail, a task which impossible for a human being to match. Then using this data it can make an accurate diagnosis.
This means that artificial intelligence will in the future take over many tasks that human beings are currently doing, even in areas such as medicine and healthcare.
As Ugandans, we are still a bit behind: we are still working the land by hand, but AI and the tech revolution will have an impact even on this form of agriculture. Technology already connects farmers to world prices and markets.
Sensors and mapping will determine soil moisture and fertility, predicting weather patterns and advising on fertilizers and optimal planting. Drones will detect changes in crop patterns and disease, and cheap connectivity will be provided through methods such as the use of white space. Even in Uganda technology and AI will still wrest us out of the past into the future.