The 4th industrial revolution: “a fusion of our physical, digital and biological worlds”

  • The ones that went before
  • The fourth industrial revolution: a complete overhaul of existing processes and systems
  • How will our daily lives be affected by this new industrial revolution?
  • Shaping the future with a shared sense of destiny

We’ve been through various industrial revolutions before, and the thing about them is that you are virtually unable to predict them – or be aware of them – until you find yourself right in the middle of one. By which time it will have changed society in such a way that it is almost impossible to remember what your life was like before it all changed. We are now at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a culmination of various technologies that completely transform the way we live and work.

The ones that went before

An industrial revolution is basically a period in time in which technological innovations result in drastic changes in people’s socio-economic status. The first industrial revolution started in Britain in 1760 and lasted until 1840. It was the time in which water and steam mechanised industry. During this period, we saw the birth of the steam locomotive and mechanised textile manufacturing. The second industrial revolution happened between the end of the 19th century and peaked at the beginning of the 20th century, and was characterised by the development of machine tools, rapid mechanisation, the invention of assembly lines and the start of large-scale industrial manufacturing. The third industrial revolution – the digital revolution – kicked off in the early 80’s with the advent of electronics, computers and the Internet. This revolution is still ongoing and is paving the way for the next industrial revolution, made possible by increasingly powerful computing and exponential technological development. This fourth industrial revolution will, again, completely transform the way we live and work, enabled by Internet-connected devices that continuously gather and process ever expanding masses of data.

 Black and white photo of crowded London streets during the first industrial revolution
An industrial revolution is basically a period in time in which technological innovations result in drastic changes in people’s socio-economic status.

The fourth industrial revolution – a complete overhaul of existing processes and systems

As in the ones that went before, the fourth industrial revolution will impact us in much more extensive ways and from various perspectives, not only from a technological and economical standpoint, but also biologically and ethically.

The German economist and professor, Klaus Schwab, who is also the executive chairman and founder of the World Economic Forum and a leading authority on the subject for almost forty years, says that the this new industrial revolution is evolving with much greater speed, affecting many countries, economies and industries around the world, necessitating a complete overhaul of existing processes and systems. The 4th revolution will fuse ubiquitous computing, AI, unmanned systems, synthetic biology and 3D/4D printing technology and will lead to a culmination of physical, digital and biological paradigms, completely changing the societal fabric of our times in ways that were previously unthinkable. In his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab mentions the rewards as well as the challenges we face while we enter yet another era of rapid technological advancement. According to Schwab, the evidence for this impending fourth revolution are velocity, breadth and depth and systems impact.

Velocity

Compared to the first, second and third industrial revolutions, this fourth one evolves at an exponential, instead of linear rate. The reason for this is that we live in an increasingly interconnected and multifaceted world and because new technological developments lead to continuously improving and newer technology.

Breadth and depth

The fourth industrial revolution continues to build on the previous digital revolution and combines various types of technologies that result in never before seen shifts, not only in the economy but also in society as a whole as well as in individual people. The fourth industrial revolution doesn’t only change what we do and how we do it – it changes who we are.

Systems impact

The fourth industrial revolution involves the transformation of complete systems, across various countries, businesses, industries and society in its entirety.

In a World Economic Forum paper by Nicholas Davis, the head of Society and Innovation at the WEF, the new fourth industrial revolution is described as the advent of cyber-physical systems which, while being “reliant on the technologies and infrastructure of the third industrial revolution…, represent entirely new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even our human bodies”. As examples, Davis names genome editing, new forms of machine intelligence, and breakthrough approaches to governance that rely on cryptographic methods such as blockchain.

Schwab calls it “nothing less than a transformation of humankind. We are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, what I consider to be the fourth industrial revolution is unlike anything humankind has experienced before…”

How will our daily lives be affected by this new industrial revolution?

Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube as well as sensor technology, our smartphones, digital cameras and other devices, generate and collect more data now than was ever possible before. Over the past two years, we have created more information than in all of our previous human history combined. It’s this explosive data production that changes how we will live and work in the future. It enables automation and artificial intelligence, pointing to widespread economic disruptions in the next few years. Up until this point, technology has consistently created more employment opportunities than it has destroyed, but could things be different this time?

Studies by McKinsey & Company have indicated that existing technologies could soon be responsible for the automation of 30 to 50 percent of all current work activities – leading to a staggering $16 trillion in eliminated wages – and massive job losses. The first to go are repetitive, blue collar jobs, but even professionals will be at risk, including customer service representatives, paralegals, and diagnosticians. In fact, the industries currently most heavily invested in include medical diagnosis and treatment, automated customer service, fraud analysis and investigation, and quality management and recommendation. As AI and robotics become more widespread – because of increasing affordability – not one industry will be left unaffected by these changes.

One major concern about the fourth industrial revolution remains the potential increase in inequality. Irrespective of the net outcome of the revolution, Schwab says he is convinced “that in the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production”, giving rise to a job market “increasingly segregated into low-skill/low-pay and high-skill/high-pay segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions”.

Although these are real concerns and we are all worried about robots taking our jobs, perhaps we should try to envision what a jobless future could actually look like. The more we systemise and automate, the more productive and efficient we’ll become. Paradoxically, however, we could be dealing with rising under- or unemployment, decreasing wages and our living standards could stagnate. We’d have more and cheaper products but we might not be able to afford them. But the future need not be all doom and gloom. All this automation could also provide unprecedented levels of luxury, a new, post-work era in which we don’t need to do as much labour and machines provide us with everything we need. We could rethink the current economic model and transition to a society that challenges capitalism. In fact, in many ways, this transition has already started.

Shaping the future with a shared sense of destiny

Indeed, the fourth industrial revolution could potentially robotise humanity, creating a society without a heart and soul. On the other hand, it could lift up humanity, complementing our very best parts – our creativity and empathy – and, with a shared sense of destiny, shape the future. We are still personally responsible for guiding the evolution of technology. We are still in control of the decisions we make as individuals, as consumers, as investors and as policy makers. People and values are what matter and to create a future that works for us all, we will need to empower people first.

As Dr. Schwab reminds us in his book, “Technology is not an exogenous force over which we have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between accept and live with it and reject and live without it. Instead, take dramatic technological change as an invitation to reflect about who we are and how we see the world. The more we think about how to harness the technology revolution, the more we will examine ourselves and the underlying social models that these technologies embody and enable, and the more we will have an opportunity to shape the revolution in a manner that improves the state of the world.”

 

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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