Blog Digital Transformation

Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution Upon Us?

23 May 2017

The first two industrial revolutions are the ones you learned about in grade school. The first was mechanization of textile manufacturing, depicted by pictures of Britain billowing smoke and covered with soot. The second industrial revolution started in the United States when Henry Ford mastered the moving assembly line and introduced the world to mass production. Cue images of the eastern U.S. covered in soot and smoke, then read The Jungle. In 2012 or so, talk of a third industrial revolution began to fill the business blogs, and this one was being driven by the digitization of manufacturing. There’s less smoke industrial revolution III, but plenty of images of “connections” being made between stuff. Grumblings of a fourth industrial revolution are getting louder, but is this one for real, or just business blogger blabber?

It’s now being called Industry 4.0 by some, so in Silicon Valley terms, it must be for real. IR4, as I just now personally dubbed it, refers to the combination of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the Internet of Systems. The IoT and AI are indeed poised to not only change the way manufacturing works, but the way all of us do business and go about our day-to-day lives. But what exactly is IR4 and how will it affect us? Will all our jobs be taken by robots? Well, yes and no.

Here’s more from the World Economic Forum:

Are the technologies that surround us tools that we can identify, grasp and consciously use to improve our lives? Or are they more than that: powerful objects and enablers that influence our perception of the world, change our behaviour and affect what it means to be human?

Technologies are emerging and affecting our lives in ways that indicate we are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, a new era that builds and extends the impact of digitization in new and unanticipated ways. It is therefore worthwhile taking some time to consider exactly what kind of shifts we are experiencing and how we might, collectively and individually, ensure that it creates benefits for the many, rather than the few.

When Were the Other Industrial Revolutions?

The First Industrial Revolution is widely taken to be the shift from our reliance on animals, human effort and biomass as primary sources of energy to the use of fossil fuels and the mechanical power this enabled. The Second Industrial Revolution occurred between the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, and brought major breakthroughs in the form of electricity distribution, both wireless and wired communication, the synthesis of ammonia and new forms of power generation. The Third Industrial Revolution began in the 1950s with the development of digital systems, communication and rapid advances in computing power, which have enabled new ways of generating, processing and sharing information.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be described as the advent of “cyber-physical systems” involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines. While these capabilities are reliant on the technologies and infrastructure of the Third Industrial Revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents entirely new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even our human bodies. Examples include genome editing, new forms of machine intelligence, breakthrough materials and approaches to governance that rely on cryptographic methods such as the blockchain.

As the novelist William Gibson famously said: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Indeed, in many parts of the world aspects of the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions have yet to be experienced, complicated by the fact that new technologies are in some cases able to “leapfrog” older ones. As the United Nations pointed out in 2013, more people in the world have access to a mobile phone than basic sanitation. In the same way, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is beginning to emerge at the same time that the third, digital revolution is spreading and maturing across countries and organizations.

The complexity of these technologies and their emergent nature makes many aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution feel unfamiliar and, to many, threatening. We should therefore remember that all industrial revolutions are ultimately driven by the individual and collective choices of people. And it is not just the choices of the researchers, inventors and designers developing the underlying technologies that matter, but even more importantly those of investors, consumers, regulators and citizens who adopt and employ these technologies in daily life.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution may look and feel like an exogenous force with the power of a tsunami, but in reality, it is a reflection of our desires and choices. At the heart of discussions around emerging technologies there is a critical and central question: what do we want these technologies to deliver for us?

What is the Potential Impact?

Every period of upheaval has winners and losers. And the technologies and systems involved in this latest revolution mean that individuals and groups could win – or lose – a lot. As Schwab says: “There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril.”

While the fact that we are still at the beginning of this revolution means that it is impossible to know the precise impact on different groups, there are three big areas of concern: inequality, security and identity…