Insights into Editorial: Fourth Industrial Revolution: What it Means, Why it’s being Discussed
23 January 2016
CEOs, political leaders, social entrepreneurs, technologists and other global leaders are all at Davos to further the World Economic Forum’s mission of improving the state of the world. But, the big buzz at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this year is about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.
What is Fourth Industrial Revolution?
As described by the founder and executive chairman of WEF, Klaus Schwab, “the fourth industrial revolution is a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another”.
1st industrial revolution: The first Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the last quarter of the 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry, harnessing of steam power, and birth of the modern factory.
2nd industrial revolution: The Second Industrial Revolution, from the last third of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of World War I, was powered by developments in electricity, transportation, chemicals, steel, and mass production and consumption. Industrialization spread even further – to Japan after the Meiji Restoration and deep into Russia, which was booming at the outset of World War I. During this era, factories could produce countless numbers of identical products quickly and cheaply.
3rd industrial revolution: The third industrial revolution, beginning c. 1970, was digital — and applied electronics and information technology to processes of production. Mass customisation and additive manufacturing — the so-called ‘3D printing’ — are its key concepts, and its applications, yet to be imagined fully, are quite mind-boggling.
How different will be the 4th industrial revolution?
There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope, and systems impact.
- The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace.
- Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.
- The 4th revolution will be characterized by 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. Examples include genome editing, new forms of machine intelligence, and breakthrough approaches to governance that rely on cryptographic methods such as blockchain.
- Hence, it can be said that the 4th industrial revolution is conceptualised as an upgrade on the third revolution and is marked by a fusion of technologies straddling the physical, digital and biological worlds.
How does mankind benefit from this?
Like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.
- By gaining access to the digital world, consumers will be benefited in several ways. With the advent of new technology, we get to use more and more efficient products.
- In the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity.
- Transportation and communication costs will drop, logistics and global supply chains will become more effective, and the cost of trade will diminish, all of which will open new markets and drive economic growth.
Challenges posed by this revolution:
Economists have pointed out that the 4th revolution could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets.
- As automation substitutes for labor across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labor.
- With this revolution, it is also possible that in the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production. This will give 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.
- In addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The largest beneficiaries of innovation tend to be the providers of intellectual and physical capital—the innovators, shareholders, and investors—which explains the rising gap in wealth between those dependent on capital versus labor.
What will be the impact on the government?
As the physical, digital, and biological worlds continue to converge, new technologies and platforms will increasingly enable citizens to engage with governments, voice their opinions, coordinate their efforts, and even circumvent the supervision of public authorities.
- Simultaneously, governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations, based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure.
- On the whole, however, governments will increasingly face pressure to change their current approach to public engagement and policymaking, as their central role of conducting policy diminishes owing to new sources of competition and the redistribution and decentralization of power that new technologies make possible.
- Ultimately, the ability of government systems and public authorities to adapt will determine their survival. If they prove capable of embracing a world of disruptive change, subjecting their structures to the levels of transparency and efficiency that will enable them to maintain their competitive edge, they will endure. If they cannot evolve, they will face increasing trouble.
Impacts on national and international security:
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will also profoundly impact the nature of national and international security, affecting both the probability and the nature of conflict.
- The history of warfare and international security is the history of technological innovation, and today is no exception.
- Modern conflicts involving states are increasingly hybrid in nature, combining traditional battlefield techniques with elements previously associated with nonstate actors.
- As new technologies such as autonomous or biological weapons become easier to use, individuals and small groups will increasingly join states in being capable of causing mass harm.
- This new vulnerability will lead to new fears. But at the same time, advances in technology will create the potential to reduce the scale or impact of violence, through the development of new modes of protection or greater precision in targeting.
The impact on people:
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will change not only what we do but also who we are. It will affect our identity and all the issues associated with it: our sense of privacy, our notions of ownership, our consumption patterns, the time we devote to work and leisure, and how we develop our careers, cultivate our skills, meet people, and nurture relationships.
- Also, the revolutions occurring in biotechnology, which are redefining what it means to be human by pushing back the current thresholds of life span, health, cognition, and capabilities, will compel us to redefine our moral and ethical boundaries too.
How can we be prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
- By providing universal access to affordable education and job training.
- By continuing to ensure basic protection for workers as the changes take place. Governments have, along with the private sector, an obligation to strengthen these core protections.
- By modernizing infrastructure. Governments have fundamental responsibilities to build roads, bridges, railways, ports, broadband. And all of this can have profound impact on economic growth, generating well-paying jobs and bringing opportunity to areas where it does not exist.
- By having a more progressive tax code.
- By expanding access to capital. Existing capital and the tools that support entrepreneurship should be made widely available to people who haven’t had access to it before.
In its most pessimistic, dehumanized form, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature—creativity, empathy, stewardship—it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. It is incumbent on us all to make sure the latter prevails. We should thus grasp the opportunity and power we have to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution and direct it toward a future that reflects our common objectives and values.