The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Phillip Keane posted on June 28, 2017 | 4925 views

The thing about industrial revolutions is that you can’t predict them until you are sitting in the middle of one, and when one does engulf you, your entire society changes so drastically that you can’t even remember what life was like before it.

And so here we sit at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with most of us being unaware that numbers two and three even occurred in the first place—and being a little bit caught off guard by the fourth one sneaking up on us. No single piece of technology defines when these revolutions occur—it is a culmination of technologies arriving at the same point in time.

Take the First Industrial Revolution as an example. The flying shuttle was nothing by itself, but when combined with the spinning jenny (and later, the waterframe), the textile industry slashed its workforce and increased its output of goods fiftyfold, resulting in vigilante Luddite machinebreakers armed with pitchforks demanding that progress should stop and that we should return to the good old days of crushing poverty and high infant mortality. Sound familiar? It should. Just as there has been an increase in productivity and a decrease in labor, each revolution also brings a wave of protest from the old guard that is worried about their livelihoods. It happened with the textile mills in the 18th century, it happened at the dawn of the automotive industry (the Second Industrial Revolution), and it’s happening now with 3D printing and self-driving taxis.

Deus Ex-inspired prosthesis. (Image courtesy of Open Bionics.)
Deus Ex-inspired prosthesis. (Image courtesy of Open Bionics.)

The First Industrial Revolution was the mechanization of industry via water and steam, and the Second Industrial Revolution was the development of machine tools, resulting in large-scale industrial manufacturing. The Third Industrial Revolution, which began in the 1980s, was the Digital Revolution and is still ongoing and has paved the way for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which was enabled largely by an increase in processor power and an increased rate of technological development that has been enabled by more powerful computing.

According to Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the fourth revolution will fuse AI, ubiquitous computing, synthetic biology, unmanned systems and additive manufacturing (AM), enabling a merging of physical, digital and biological systems that will change the world in ways that were previously unimaginable. Schwab has been a leading authority on this subject for nearly 40 years, and has even released a book titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this book, he speaks of the simultaneous rewards and risks that we face as we enter another period of rapid technological advancement.

But is he correct to use the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution?" With all the talk of designer babies and cyborgs, is he too early in naming a fourth revolution? I’m not seeing many cyborgs walking down my high street. The term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” has been bandied around since the dawn of the Atomic Age. Is Schwab too late even? Are we already in the fifth revolution and Schwab just hasn’t noticed?

In the introduction to his book, Schwab outlines three factors that he offers as evidence for the impending fourth (or fifth) revolution. These are:

  • Velocity: Contrary to the previous industrial revolutions, this one is evolving at an exponential rather than linear pace. This is the result of the multifaceted, deeply interconnected world we live in and the fact that new technology begets newer and ever more capable technology.
  • Breadth and depth: It builds on the digital revolution and combines multiple technologies that are leading to unprecedented paradigm shifts in the economy, business, society, and individually. It is not only changing the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of doing things but also ‘who’ we are.
  • Systems impact: It involves the transformation of entire systems, across (and within) countries, companies, industries and society as a whole.

On the face of it, you could apply two of these factors to the Second or Third Industrial Revolutions and they would still hold true. The “breadth and depth” of the second and third revolutions were built on the shoulders of the first, and did indeed introduce huge paradigm shifts to the economy and society at large. The petrochemical industry was born in the Second Industrial Revolution. Digital computing was the driving force of the third.

The same can be said for the “systems impact.” Telegraph communications born in the second revolution made the world a smaller, more connected place. The groundwork laid by the telegraph network gave rise (ultimately) to the Internet. Don’t tell me that the second revolution didn’t change things fundamentally on a system level. Carnot pioneered our understanding of systems themselves during the first revolution, and the second revolution really picked up the ball (and ran with it), giving rise to electrical systems and communications systems, and resulting in faster communications, which naturally affected us all on social and political levels.

From the three factors quoted above, there are two aspects that we can say with certainty differentiate this revolution (whatever number it is) from the previous ones.

First, regarding “velocity,” we can say that technological developments in the current revolution will be exponential rather than linear. This is perhaps a no-brainer, as everything enabled by the fourth revolution is the result of computing power, which has been increasing exponentially according to Moore’s Law for decades. Incidentally, patent applications have been following a similar pattern for a while. It stands to reason that we will be innovating at the pace that our tools will allow.

Second, and perhaps most significantly, the fourth revolution is (according to Schwab) “not only changing the “what” and the “how” of doing things but also “’who’” we are.”

The first revolution may have seen advances in medicine and surgery and hygiene, but these things didn’t alter us on a human level. And that seems to be what truly differentiates this revolution.

Synthetic biology, human/computer interfaces, genetic engineering, cybernetic prostheses and artificial life-forms (see: Synthia) are the things that will redefine humankind as a species.

Let’s jump off the hype train for a moment and be clear about a couple of things. A quadcopter isn’t going to change your life, beyond maybe shaving 20 minutes off a pizza delivery time. An autonomous taxi isn’t likely to alter your life any more than those who were impacted when we made the switch from horse to automobile.

But stick a chip in your head that gives you a memory boost or enables you to understand Mandarin, or have someone design a hybrid liver/kidney (called a “Kliver,” according to Jacob Cohen, chief scientist at NASA Ames) and put it inside your abdomen—and now we are fundamentally changing who we are as a species. For the first time in history, we are no longer slaves to evolution.

So, whether Schwab is correct and we are at the cusp of the fourth revolution, or whether he has misnumbered it completely, one thing is certain: the coming revolution will see the hybridization of systems across multiple domains and will encroach onto biological systems. And more people will lose their jobs.

And to quote Stewart Brand, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road. So go forth, learn a STEM subject, and make sure your future is robot-proof.

You can get a copy of Schwab’s book on Amazon, either in e-book format injected directly into your brain, or in the archaic printed form (if you’re a total Luddite).


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