Thabo Mohlala, sent professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the current vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg , a list of questions to talk about the importance of STEM and other latest technologies to help resolve the myriad of challenges South Africa is wrestling with.
Professor Marwal is an accomplished scientists and engineer with strings of enviable accoldes under his belt. His research interests span a number of disciplines ranging from the theory and application of artificial intelligence to engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine. He is also an avid proponent of artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT), and the current member of the Presidential 4IR Commission.
Can you please share with as to where it all started for Professor Marwala – your personal journey or background before you reached this point in your career.
I was born in Venda in a village called Duthuni, and I was educated there until I finished high school at Mbilwi High School. When I was at Mbilwi, I entered the National Youth Science Olympiad in 1989 and won it. Because of this, I attended the National Science Week in Johannesburg and the London International Science Fortnight in England. This is where my desire to study overseas came from. After matric, I did a British A-Levels study at St John’s College in Johannesburg. Briefly, I went to the University of Cape Town and transferred to Case Western Reserve University in the USA, where I completed a degree in mechanical engineering Magna Cum Laude. Then I briefly worked for the CSIR before I completed a master’s degree at the University of Pretoria. Then I went to the University of Cambridge, where I completed a PhD in Engineering. Then I did a post-doctorate at Imperial College (London). I returned to South Africa in 2001 and worked for South African Breweries for two years. After that, I was an Associate and Full Professor and the SARChI Chair in Systems Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. Thereafter, I went to the University of Johannesburg, where I was a Dean of Engineering Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and now I am a Vice-Chancellor and Principal.
Is there any specific person, incident or moment that influenced you to pursue the sciences?
Many people. My grandmother Vho-Tshianeo was a skilled artisan. My father was a mathematics teacher. The great teachers I had in high school, Mr Muloiwa and Professor Matamba at Mbilwi. Mr Patel, Mr Joseph, and Mr. Gabriel at Dimani. These were inspirational teachers.
In your view, why is science important not only for us here in South Africa but broadly for humanity?
Science is a response to our basic humans’ needs, an avenue to improve living standards and the key to our most deep-seated challenges. This, of course, is a key tenet in the 4IR. In a 2017 report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicted that the 4IR will create massive job losses but will simultaneously pave the way for new occupations especially in fields such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), data analysis, computer science and engineering. It is envisaged that the demand will be for professionals who have a blend of digital and STEM skills with traditional subject knowledge. It is crucial for us to embrace science not only to answer questions and map out our future but because we risk becoming irrelevant if we do not.
You are a passionate proponent of AI, can you please explain in simple terms, what this is all about or what it entails?
AI is a technology that makes machines intelligent. A machine is considered to be intelligent if it can analyse information and extract insights beyond the obvious. In other words, machines mimic human thinking – and in many instances it surpasses this. While computers traditionally relied on people to tell them what to do and how to react, AI is based on machines that are able to learn and make their own decision. Just like we would train a dog to do tricks, you can train AI to do certain things. AI is based on algorithms, which are mathematical tools that provide a path between a start point and an end point and can be used to predict patterns. For instance, a simple example of AI is the way streaming service Netflix uses algorithms to give you suggestions of what to watch next based on you viewing patterns. If you watched Black Panther and the Avengers Endgame recently, it may suggest Captain Marvel or the Batman Trilogy.
How does it differ from the IoT?
In extremely simple terms, the internet-of-things (IoT) refers to an ecosystem made up of anything that can be connected to the internet, ranging from a smart phone to an aeroplane to even a smart fridge. These devices communicate over a network. The idea is for these devices to connect. AI, in contrast, is the technology that simulates human behaviour and intelligence. An example of IoT is a smart fridge is able to communicate with the internet and is often equipped to determine itself whenever a food item needs to be replenished. It can then be connected to your smartphone to alert you of this.
In the context of South Africa, how or which specific spheres or sectors of our society can any of these technologies be deployed to greater effect?
The idea is that this will be an approach that every sphere and sector of our society embraces and can benefit from. After all, the technologies of the 4IR have created substantial disruptions to every sphere of our lives. For instance, there are possible application of AI to health, agriculture, finance, mining, manufacturing, and government. Of key importance, however, in a South African context is that we look at reindustrialising our country. We need to map out ways to deepen automation so that South African companies remain competitive and also how to automate industries such as mining so that it becomes safer and more productive by means of the 4IR technologies.
You are also known to be a strong advocate of the 4IR, how can the country leverage and harness technologies associated with it to address the myriad of mainly socio-economic challenges it currently faces?
As we eke out ways to revitalize our economy and put ourselves back on a growth path, tapping into the opportunities of the 4IR provides an important solution. Embracing 4IR will ensure that South Africa becomes more competitive in the international arena. With daily reports of company closures, this will be vital for creating job opportunities, alleviating poverty and bringing more much-needed investment into the country. We also cannot ignore that one of the greatest benefits of embracing the 4IR is the potential for greater societal well-being from providing better healthcare and service delivery to better managing the functions of government. We have a 4IR blueprint in place – one that was established through the presidential 4IR commission. The recommendations we have made include investing in human capital, establishing an AI institute, creating a platform for advanced manufacturing, securing and availing data to enable innovation, as well as incentivising 4IR industries and platforms. The other recommendations are building 4IR infrastructure, reviewing and amending legislation, and, finally, establishing a 4IR strategy implementation coordination council. In the implementation of these recommendations, localisation and ownership by various levels of government will be crucial.
The provision of data became a focal point since the first outbreak of the Covid-19 forcing universities and other academic institutions to resort to digital or online distance learning and teaching. As someone who gives regular input on ‘Open Data’ and part of ICSU; do you have any suggestions regarding how universities and other academic institutions can innovatively deal with this challenge in future?
As our University serves as a microcosm of South Africa, the digital divide remains stark. For many, limited access to devices and data posed a stark challenge. We often take for granted that these resources that we perceive as necessities are not a reality for all. For some, difficult decisions have had to be taken about whether to forego other needs in favour of data bundles. While we have responded to this as an institution with the distribution of devices and agreements with telecommunications companies to provide free data for this period, these are only short-term fixes. This has not been a perfect band aid. While our University website has been zero-rated, our learning management systems have not. Added to this, much of the data allocated by telecommunications companies are night owl bundles, which can only be used between midnight and 5am. The vexed issue of devices and data requires a national intervention. At the University level, there could be merit in exploring ways of utilising mobile technology to support teaching and learning. While we have continually tried to pivot solutions to these challenges, there needs to be a view towards developing long term plans
Given your science pedigree and the fact that digital and online platforms are going to be an integral part of the educational space; can we expect the UJ to stand out as a distinctly ‘digital savvy’ institution with you at the helm?
When I took the helm, my key objective was to position UJ at the forefront of the 4IR. Since then, we have established ourselves as an active player. UJ is widely regarded as a model for other universities in leading the 4IR conversation in South Africa and the continent. Prior to the necessitated shift to online teaching and learning in 2020, we had already seen digital transformation. We have master’s dissertations on how to 3D print your world and robots developed by students to demonstrate how programming can make inanimate objects move via coding, enabling the robot to solve a maze. We had incorporated virtual reality into teaching and has launched a compulsory AI course for all first years. Now, of course, our pedagogical approaches require us to embrace the power of technology as a valuable interface, while continuing to offer contact tuition. The pandemic, in a sense, was an important litmus test for our preparedness for digital transformation and we found great avenues for opportunity and identified our fault lines.
South African learners, particularly those in lower grades, continuously lag behind their counterparts in international maths, science and literacy tests, what in your view, can be done to help improve learner performance in these critical subjects?
This begins with teaching differently. At the university level, for example, part of the solution is to shift the focus from teaching to learning, with an emphasis on real-world problem-solving abilities and a multidisciplinary approach to curriculum that is more interactive. In tandem with traditional classroom learning, there is a move towards including student engagement through peer-to-peer interaction and one-on-one counseling which holds great promise for students. Here the 4IR is directly injected into the learning processes through AI, learning analytics, and mobile-based learning platforms, which personalizes the learning experience. For example, AI in the classroom has the potential to simulate real-life experiences. It is pivotal that numeracy and literacy skills are prioritised in the early years of basic education. Ultimately, we have to ensure that the vast budgets allocated to education are spent on resources such as textbooks. One of the key solutions we can pivot is a continual culture of reading, which has to be embedded in all our learners. For instance, at UJ, I hold a VC reading group monthly where we pick a book to read and have a discussion. This could be implemented at all levels of education.
Finally, how has your tenure as vice-chancellor of one of the most prestigious institutions in the country been so far?
It has been fantastic. We have positioned the University of Johannesburg as the university of the fourth industrial revolution. We have introduced a Business School and acquired the Media Park Complex from Naspers. Artificial intelligence is now a compulsory subject for all our students. We have introduced many new programmes, including a BA in Politics, Economics and Technology.