The fourth industrial revolution: It works for UJ


For people such as Robert Westwood, or a rural nurse in Limpopo, or Banele Hlengethwa from Daveyton, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) as it is being embraced at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), has a meaning far beyond anything they could have imagined. It’s not just that it’s making their own lives and work better and more productive; it’s providing tangible improvements in the lives of others.

Virtual training, real expertise

When Robert Westwood was called out as an emergency care practitioner in the wind and the rain to rescue a German tourist who had fallen 15m on the Kingfisher hiking trail near Wilderness, despite the inaccessibility of the location and the extremely adverse weather conditions, he knew exactly what to do. When he was lowered into the crevice where the injured man was lying with his pelvis shattered, his body temperature plummeting and his level of consciousness slipping, Westwood drew on the thorough and extensive simulation training that he had received while studying for his Bachelor of Health Sciences degree in Emergency Medical Care at UJ.

Among all the other exercises and technology that Westwood was exposed to, he had also been amongst the first cohort of students to spend a full weekend at Gariep Dam, where rescue missions were simulated with combinations of aviation, small-boat rescue and the use of a fully-equipped temporary hospital set up specifically for the training. And it was there that he learnt how to build the high-angle system he used in Wilderness to lower himself and his partner down to the injured hiker.

Simulations include the use of drones, GoPro cameras and high-tech command posts. There are mannequins so sophisticated that they can breathe, bleed, cry and vomit. They even vibrate if they are “experiencing” a seizure, and respond immediately to any real medication administered intravenously. With this kind of state-of-the-art 4IR technology at UJ, the use of simulations is proving not just effective, but life-saving in real emergencies.

Artificial intelligence, real diagnosis

Meanwhile, for a nurse in rural Limpopo, who for the first time is confronted with a young woman presenting with a painful lump in her breast, what would have been a complex and dangerous situation fraught with inexperience, delays and frustrations, is capable of resolution within minutes. Despite a lack of specialist training, and the distances and time-lags involved if the young woman were to have to seek a diagnosis from a radiologist and oncologist, all the Limpopo nurse needs to do is to upload the information to the data-base being built by Professor Qing-Guo Wang at UJ’s Institute for Intelligent Systems. This system makes use of artificial intelligence (AI) to produce accurate, immediate diagnoses from an analysis of 20 000 cases from the archives of the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital that have been placed into the data-base.

Wang has a PhD in industrial automation and is an internationally renowned researcher in multiple engineering-related fields. He is passionate about exploring ways in which AI can advance technology and improve services so that people can access a better quality of life.

For the many millions of South Africans like the young Limpopo woman, who don’t have medical aid or easy access to medical expertise and specialists, remote diagnostic systems such as the one being developed at the Institute for Intelligent Systems can literally save lives. They can dramatically circumvent the need to wait weeks or months to see a doctor in the public health system, and completely eliminate the often lengthy, expensive and uncomfortable journeys required to get essential and authoritative initial help. Even for a nurse with only rudimentary training, a full, accurate and timely diagnosis will be possible. It’s nothing short of revolutionary.

Digital work, real employment

And a revolution is what has happened in the life of Banele Hlengethwa, a 25-year old diesel mechanic graduate who was working part-time in retail and promotions during his student years, when he was recruited as a fieldworker in a Quality of Life Survey being conducted by UJ’s Process, Energy and Environment Technology Station (PEETS).   

One of the university’s most advanced such surveys, it used an app that had been developed at PEETS so that it could geolocate the fieldworkers, time the questionnaire process, and identify any misleading or fraudulent responses or activities. With automated quality control processes eliminating errors and discrepancies, the result was an authentic, reliable and dynamic set of data on which the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) could rely.

Hlengethwa’s leadership qualities quickly landed him a role as a facilitator — then, in succession, positions as a quality distribution agent, assistant in logistics planning and map population — and finally, as a supervisor.

Learning about the quality of other people’s lives through state-of-the-art 4IR technology has dramatically changed the quality of his own, and others. In 2018 Hlengethwa started the Yenzokuhle Social Enterprise and Skills Village, with the aim of addressing issues such as crime, gangsterism, alcohol and drug abuse and teenage pregnancies in his community. And at the core of it all is the 4IR technology he learnt to work with through his association with UJ through PEETS.

Reimagining tomorrow

As a leader in academic thought and research in Africa, UJ has embraced the technology that is shaping our future, not just on our continent, but globally. And it’s doing this in myriad ways — applying it in both teaching and learning — using it to advance not just ideas, but also skills, expertise and capacity. People everywhere will be able to experience real benefits and meaningful, positive change in their lives, both as developers and recipients, of the advantages that 4IR has to offer.

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