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Wits at the forefront of the technology revolution

What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, wrote a book about this, calling it “a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.”

Vice-Chancellor’s message:

Professor Adam Habib has indicated that Wits is embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution and infusing technology through all aspects of University life, including teaching, research and learning. “We have invested R500 million in an ICT upgrade, adopted a new cutting edge research strategy, and introduced innovative blended learning options, including a digital campusonline courses and high tech classrooms.”

Wits is in partnership with Telkom, the University of Fort Hare and the University of Johannesburg to explore how the Fourth Industrial Revolution could shape the futures of South Africa. The partnership will explore the impact of the 4IR on the economy and seek to build an inclusive developmental future for all South Africans.

2018 round table: creating the future we want

dialogue on Wits' response to the Fourth Industrial Revoluion.

Curiosity magazine:

Wits’ research magazine devoted an issue to the interaction of humans and technologies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct:

A partnership between Wits University, the JCSE, the LINK Centre, the City of Joburg and others, Tshimologong is an e-skills, software innovation and digital knowledge hub. It provides a venue in which to research and nurture tech hubs – those “digital incubators that design futures for people”.

LINK Centre:

The centre offers research and training in telecommunications, Internet, broadcasting, digital media, social media, e-government, digital transformation, innovation systems, cybersecurity and intellectual property.

Feeding facts into business:

The first ever Chair in Digital Business in Africa was established at Wits Business School in 2016. It aims to build up a body of research and prepare business people for the digital era.

Africa takes its place:

Wits hosted the first Deep Learning Indaba in 2017, its aims being to increase African participation in and contribution to the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, and to address issues of diversity in these fields of science. Wits alumni were among the international expert speakers.

Smart cities:

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) is a partnership between Wits, the University of Johannesburg and the Gauteng provincial and local government. Its mandate is to help inform decisions that make urban life better for all. Primary data collection, data analysis and visualisation are some of its most significant research contributions. 

Data for public health:

Wits leads the sub-Saharan African Consortium for Advanced Biostatistical Training. This group is developing a network of biostatisticians who will train researchers and develop ways of analysing health data.

Mines of the future:

Innovative technology solutions for the mining sector are the focus of the Digital Mine project at the Wits Mining Institute.

Humans and machines:

Researchers at Wits are finding unique and interesting ways to employ technology and artificial intelligence in the workplace and to improve people’s lives.
Wits robotics researcher and alumnus Dr Benjamin Rosman has been awarded Africa’s only grant in the 2017 round of the Google Faculty Research Awards. The grant is in the “Machine learning and data mining” category.

Learning online:

Wits offers short online courses through Digital Campus.


Biomedical engineers at Wits are connecting a human brain to the internet in real time.

The future of work:

Prof Imraan Valodia says we should protect the most vulnerable people in the labour market from the impact of the revolution.

Beefing up bandwidth:

Wits’ Structured Light Laboratory is looking at alternative sources that will be able to take over where traditional optical communications systems are likely to fail in future.

Future engineers:

Electrical and information engineering students designed and built projects for the School of Electrical and Information Engineering Open Day in October 2017.

Making sense of complexity:

The Wits Rural Facility became a ‘lab in the bush’ for a systems analysis thinking and modelling programme. Delegates learnt to use cutting-edge software in complex, interdisciplinary research.

Stone Age meets Digital Age:

Anthropologist Prof Robert Thornton writes about the people and techniques extracting the minerals required to make the technology for Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Is digital access a human right?

Researchers examined the relationship between quality of life and the extent to which individuals are digitally connected. They found that digital inequality co-exists with other forms of inequality.

A new way of learning:

The launch of a high-tech eZone, eFundanathi – “Learn with Us” – is set to revolutionise teaching and learning at Wits.

Telling the story of our 2,6-million-year history:

The Origins Centre has a virtual reality production which takes visitors on a journey through time.

Think and it’s done:

Biomedical engineers at Wits are researching how brainwaves can be used to control a robotic prosthetic hand.

Picture the future:

Wits offers courses in Digital Arts, including Game Design and Interactive Media.

Humans and machines:

How do the humanities prepare students for the fourth industrial revolution?

Witsies in the AI and robotics field:

A young supremely talented group of Witsies are influential in the AI and Robotics field.

  • Shakir Mohamed (BSc Elec Eng 2005; MSc Elec Eng 2007) Research Scientist in Statistical Machine Learning and AI, Deep Mind, London
  • Fernando de Freitas (BSc Elec Eng 1994; MSc Elec Eng 1997) Professor of Computer Science, Oxford University
  • Vukosi Marivate (BSc Elec Eng 2007; MSc Elec Eng 2009)  Data Scientist, Senior Researcher, CSIR
  • Richard Klein (BSc 2010; BSc Hons 2011; MSc 2013; PhD 2017) Wits School of Computer Science
  • George Konidaris (BSc 2001; BSc Hons 2002) Director of the Intelligent Robot Lab, Brown University

An evening with the future


Alumni networking event

The more we think about revolutionary advancements in technology, the more we think about what it means to be human. It’s exciting to think about what technology can do, but it also raises concerns around ethics, trust, privacy and even spirituality.

Technology touches almost every aspect of our lives and we need to consider the implications for humanity. Should machines cut us out of certain operations and think for themselves? Should we connect our minds and bodies to the internet? The questions pile up as the implications for business, medicine, government and daily life emerge.

Vukosi Marivate was MC at a Wits alumni networking event on 10 May 2018

Almost 200 Wits alumni across the generations arrived at the Wits Business School’s Donald Gordon Auditorium on 10 May to hear a distinguished panel of Witsies discuss “The Future of the Connected Human”.

(To see photos of the event, click here. To see an edited video, click here. The event also featured on the SABC's Network programme.)

Guests were welcomed by master of ceremonies Vukosi Marivate (BSc Eng 2007, MSc Eng 2009), who is a senior data scientist at the CSIR and a Wits Convocation Exco member.

Arthur Goldstuck (BA 1984), head of World Wide Worx, a technology market research company, skilfully facilitated the discussion. Setting the scene, he pointed to the explosive proliferation of technology start-up companies and mentioned some of the concepts, products and trends he had seen at recent international exhibitions. Built-in voice commands; smart clothing; brain-to-vehicle signals; text by thinking; flying cars; the end of passwords… It’s all here or coming soon. He also shared insights from research into the technology that South African companies are already using or planning to use.

Arthur Goldstuck facilitates The Future of the Connected Human, a Wits alumni networking event on 10 May 2018

The panellists

Panellist Dr Benjamin Rosman (BSc 2007, BSc Hons 2008, BSc Hons 2009) senior lecturer in the Wits School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics and Principal Researcher at the CSIR, spoke about his work in robotics and machine learning. This includes working out how to transfer knowledge from humans to robots, among robots themselves, and even from robots back to humans (think of being able to learn skills that have been lost). The goal is for robots to learn, from their experience, how to make decisions. This in turn can teach humans more about decision-making.

Adam Pantanowitz (BSc Eng 2007, BSc Eng 2008), lecturer in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering, is working a groundbreaking project: connecting human brain activity directly to the internet.

Vimbai Muzofa (MCom 2015), Head: Interbank & RTGS (Africa Regions) at Standard Bank Group, is interested in human behaviour in the sphere of financial activity. In her work she looks at issues of trust when it comes to money; speed and efficiency in financial services; and mining data to understand what clients want.

Sunil Geness (MM 2006), Director, Government Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility, SAP Africa and President of the Information Technology Association of South Africa, talked about the revenue potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will touch people’s lives in many ways. He urged the audience to watch Do You Trust This Computer?, a movie that “explores the promises and perils of our new era”.

The discussion

Are robots just a toy, a gimmick? Though the fun aspect of robots is good for getting children excited about science, technology, engineering and maths, Rosman said, what people want in many contexts is to be able to make better predictions and decisions. The promise of robotics is that systems could make better decisions than humans can.

When you connect your mind to the internet and share your biological signals, are you opening the way for dangerous invasions of privacy? It’s uncharted territory, said Pantanowitz. Humans seem to have a natural urge towards networking, but there are ethical concerns to consider. In response to a question from the audience about interfering with consciousness, he added that the aim of science is discovery and understanding.

What about big business: will companies treat information ethically when they have access to powerful technological tools? Muzofa said that in order to survive, financial services companies have to take on technology and use it to mine data – but they are highly regulated. In response to a question, she said banks have to be inclusive and collaborate with the people they are there to serve.

We have to make sure that the digital economy creates jobs instead of just replacing humans, said Geness.

Rosman said that there is a lot of potential for AI to be used in education. Answering a question about embedding morality in robots, he agreed it was important to make AI safe and to avoid giving robots “bad” instructions.

  • The first Deep Learning Indaba took place at Wits in 2017, attracting several eminent international experts who are also Wits alumni. The outcomes were reported here. The next Indaba takes place in Stellenbosch in September this year. Its mission is to strengthen African machine learning.


Dr Benjamin Rosman was a panellist at The Future of the Connected Human, a Wits alumni networking event on 10 May 2018

Vimbai Muzofa was on the panel at The Future of the Connected Human, a Wits alumni networking event on 10 May 2018

Sunil Geness was on the panel at The Future of the Connected Human, a Wits alumni networking event on 10 May 2018

Adam Pantanowitz at a Wits alumni networking event on 10 May 2018, The Future of the Connected Human