First it was steam, then electricity, followed by digital technology. Each of these revolutions caused jolting disruptions to industry and society. Today, some very smart trend watchers are saying we at the start of a fourth industrial revolution that is going to make the previous three look like mild disturbances of the status quo.
Rapid Technological Change
Klaus Schwab is the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of the planet’s most important movers and shakers. In an article in Foreign Affairs, he wrote “We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another.”
He says this change will be unlike anything humans have experienced before because it is happening so rapidly. For example, 3D printing was scarcely heard of outside research laboratories at the start of this century. Today, 3D-printed organs are being transplanted into people.
Early Industrial Revolutions
The first revolution harnessed steam power to drive factory machinery. Beginning in about the 1760s, the steam engine started to be used in agriculture and textile mills. Steamships and railways changed travel times dramatically. Factories powered by steam caused workers to move off the land and into growing cities to fill the jobs that beckoned.
The second upheaval saw electricity take the place of steam. Chemical fertilizers changed farming and gasoline-powered vehicles changed travel. Assembly-line manufacturing developed and reduced the cost of making products. That revolution started in the late 1800s and lasted until about 1950.
Then, electronics, computers, and all things digital arrived. Factory production became automated and, more recently, robotic. Communication and information storage and retrieval became instantaneous.
The Fourth Revolution
The fourth industrial revolution can be seen as an extension of the third one, but it does mark a fundamental change. So-called smart technologies are dramatically and rapidly altering workplaces. When genetic engineering, the miniaturization of sensors, and artificial intelligence are married to one another some very surprising innovations occur.
Scientists are talking about growing humans in laboratories and building a brain-to-computer interface so that folk will be able to get a download of all human knowledge.
Klaus Schwab adds that “Engineers, designers, and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.”
We are now on the edge of having the ability to design and engineer the world around us.
Writing for Forbes Magazine, futurist Bernard Marr makes the point that “This revolution is expected to impact all disciplines, industries, and economies . . . The fourth industrial revolution is disrupting almost every industry in every country and creating massive change . . . ”
Impact on Jobs
“Nearly 42 percent of the employed Canadian labour force is at a high risk of automation over the next 10 to 20 years.” That comes from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University, Toronto, but it’s a phenomenon that applies to all advanced industrial societies.
The 2016 report goes on to add “The vast majority of high-risk occupations are in office support and general administration, sales and services, transportation and distribution, lower skilled technical occupations in health, natural and applied sciences, as well as manufacturing and construction labourers and assemblers.”
There is not going to be a demand for truck, bus, and taxi drivers or locomotive engineers; self-driving vehicles are already here. The technology exists for airplanes to fly without pilots and for ships to sail without crews.
Self-checkouts and automated banking machines have already cut into the ranks of cashiers. Amazon opened its first cashier-free stores in 2018 and many more will follow. Food counter staff will also be replaced by automation.
High-skilled jobs in healthcare and education are, for now, less likely to be vulnerable.
While many jobs will be eliminated, others will change and new ones will be created.
Winners in the Future Economy
Mr. Marr notes that early-adopters of advanced technology gain the most. They are also the ones with the financial resources to take advantage of breakthroughs and this “can catapult their continued success, increasing the economic gaps.”
So, those who are already doing well will do even better. However, he issues a warning that “even those who are ahead of the curve in terms of their knowledge and preparation, might not be able to keep up with the ripple effects of the changes.”
Over at the World Economic Forum, Professor Schwab calls for cooperation. He wants people to work together to “shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.”
History is not on the side of that happening. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries made factory owners immensely wealthy. The people who toiled in the factories endured unsafe working conditions and brutally long hours for low pay. They lived in squalid housing, breathed heavily polluted air, and died young.
Dr. Schwab acknowledges this: “Technology is therefore one of the main reasons why incomes have stagnated, or even decreased, for a majority of the population in high-income countries: the demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The result is a job market with a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle.”
What Could Go Wrong?
The problem with revolutions is that they almost always lead to unforeseen outcomes.
When scientists in the Bell Laboratories made the first transistor in 1947 they could not foresee how computers would eventually displace millions of workers.
Dr. Schwab is warning us about the possibilities of major disruptions that might spring from the fourth industrial revolution.
He has written for Encyclopedia Britannica that “All previous industrial revolutions have had both positive and negative impacts on different stakeholders. Nations have become wealthier, and technologies have helped pull entire societies out of poverty, but the inability to fairly distribute the resulting benefits or anticipate externalities (side effects) has resulted in global challenges.”
He hopes society will distribute the benefits coming out of the current bursts of innovation more evenly.
Who Benefits from Technology?
- Sailing from Europe to America took about six weeks in the 19th century. Steamships reduced the travel time to six days. Then, propeller-powered planes could cross the Atlantic in 14 hours and jets took six or seven hours. In 1976, the Concorde supersonic jet entered service and the journey came down to three hours and 30 minutes.
- Between 1956 and 2015, computing performance increased one trillion-fold.
- The Apollo Guidance Computer that made it possible for the first humans to walk on the Moon’s surface in 1969 had the same processing power of two Nintendo game consoles.
- “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What it Means, How to Respond.” Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum, January 14, 2016.
- “The 4th Industrial Revolution Is Here - Are You Ready?” Bernard Marr, Forbes Magazine, October 13, 2018.
- “Robots in the Workplace: What the Future of Automation Means for Canadian Jobs.” Brookfield Institute, June 15, 2016.
- “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Klaus Schwab, Encyclopedia Britannica, May 25, 2018.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Liz Westwood from UK on November 22, 2018:
As a child I used to marvel at my grandmother (born in 1900) talking about how much things had changed in her lifetime. Now, as a grandparent myself I am on the verge of doing similar. The pace of change and the challenges that come with it are in some ways frightening.