Updated: Apr 12, 2021
The world is being transformed by a fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) already in terms of how we learn, work, move, and interact. None of us will be able to sit on the sidelines and watch it pass. The world is about to change into something unrecognizable, and we are all going to be a part of it.
Learning From Past
By learning from the influence of several major historical events, we can peer into our possible future enabled by the convergence of emerging technologies.
Pre Industrial Era
Before Industrialization, the global population is small, with limited trade existing between different peoples. There are no factories and no mass production. Things are crafted by hand and most people live off the land. This era is dominated by monarchy and religionism.
First Industrial Revolution
In the mid-1700s, the invention of the steam engine enabled all manner of mechanization. The mass production of low-cost iron and steel led to the building of large, strong and complex machines for manufacturing and structures. Then the automation of textile manufacturing was pioneered using inventions such as the spinning jenny. Industrialization resulted in significant socioeconomic change. Houses were built around factories to keep labour close. Mass production was born.
Unions emerged to support worker rights, formal large scale primary education systems were established to educate children who were once captive to a farm or factory floor. Farmworkers seeking better economic circumstances moved to these new urban centres, creating rapidly growing cities. Cities grew quickly, science prospered. Big diseases such as smallpox began to be conquered. For the first time, large numbers of people had more free time and discretionary income. Mainstream banking emerged. A significant positive change occurred but with few safety nets, many people suffered in this new industrial landscape. New industrial nations began to compete and different economic systems emerged.
Second Industrial Revolution
In the mid to late 1800s, another pattern of industrial change began to emerge that appears to overlap with the first. Probably the most important technology of the second industrial revolution was the application of electricity. Particularly its widespread availability to the public. It’s hard to overstate the difference between a world with and without electricity. Electricity enabled the telephone to be invented and transformed how humans communicated. What appeared first as magic allowed people to speak to each other over great distances, including vast oceans. The second industrial revolution also introduced the gas-powered combustion engine which led to the emergence of the automobile and the aeroplane. Transportation would never be the same. Highways and airports were built, connecting communities and countries. Better technology also allowed railways to greatly expand and become more efficient.
Third Industrial Revolution
Beginning in the late 1940s, a third industrial revolution started arguably the most important technology that triggered this revolution was the invention of the transistor. This revolutionary technology uses semiconducting material to control the state of electricity passing through it. By controlling the state of an electrical current analogue information can be stored and communicated electronically. Early on transistors enabled smaller radios and low-cost calculators. Both military and space ambitions in the United States accelerated rapid transistor innovation in the 1950s. Later, when the semiconductor material used was largely silicon, the miniaturization of the transistors into tiny silicon chips enabled the development of modern computers. The low cost, mass production of the silicon chip-enabled the broad development of computing technology. Unlike the first and second industrial revolutions, which mechanized manual processes, the third revolution is characterized by digitization. Or the process by which a computer processes information.
Fourth Industrial Revolution / Industry 4.0
The fourth Industrial Revolution can be divided into three phases. It’s a really valuable way of understanding the evolution of the internet.
i) First Wave
In the period of 1985 to 1999, a way to connect documents within and between systems emerged, called the World Wide Web. Now with a computer and a telephone connection, millions could access an abundance of information that knew a few barriers. The Internet was immediately a compelling platform for all manner of information sharing. And companies found it powerful for making their services known. These years were dominated by big players such as Microsoft, IBM, HP, Apple, etc. The First Wave as defined by the building blocks of hardware and software.
ii) Second Wave
The Second Wave happened during the years 2000 to 2015, a new phase of the internet began called Web 2.0. The web became a multi-billion dollar global platform that removes the constraints of geography and time. The second wave enabled the software as a service. This period was defined by companies and areas such as search, social, and eCommerce. Examples include Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, etc. These services built rich applications on top of the infrastructure of the internet. This period was also defined by the on-boarding of billions of new internet users. In 1996, there were 36 million internet users. By the end of the Second Wave in 2015, internet usage had reached 3.3 billion unique global users. The Second Wave also included the use of smartphones, as devices for regular access to the internet. The Smartphone also enabled the development of millions of new applications, in what has become known as the App economy.
iii) Exploring the Third Wave
The Third Wave, which begins in 2016 and continues to this day, is not defined as hardware or software, but as a period of internet happening everywhere. This is when the internet is effectively built into a vast array of products and services. We can say “we are internet-enabled in The Third Wave”. The Third Wave is a new era of business models and re-invention that have internet access and wireless connectivity as basic enablers. This Third Wave is a catalyst to further disruptive digital transformation. It’s already changing our homes, health care, government, transportation, and more. This accelerating digital transformation has created the core conditions for a third wave Fourth industrial revolution.
Third-wave is about the technology, socioeconomics, and culture of bits but it’s a lot more, It’s about the physical world too. It’s about new ways of building things, robots and drones, self-driving cars, and smart, connected cities. When we reinvent through the lens of digital and physical, it means rethinking subjects as diverse as our cities, our work, our money, our ethics, how we are entertained and how we play. And then fundamentally, our purpose and role in this world.
Impact of Industry 4.0
i) The emergence of Smarter Cities
Today, Over half the global population lives in an urban environment and within just a couple of decades, that number will reach 70%. Each week around two million more people leave rural areas and join cities. Urbanization at this scale is a recent human phenomenon. Today’s megacities are a product of our first and second Industrial Revolutions and it seems fitting that they will soon reflect the convergences of the fourth Industrial Revolution. Rethinking and reinventing how our cities deliver their services in a digital age will require connected intelligent systems. Those local governments that are already pursuing the first phases of this type of strategy are being called Smart cities. They are using technology to improve livability, workability, and sustainability. Foundational fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as high speed fixed and wireless internet, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, digitization, big data and even newer tech such as blockchain are becoming the building blocks of our future cities.
ii) Global Emergence of Gig Economy
The five-day, 40-hour workweek While we take it for granted today, is a relatively new concept in the United States in the 1920s. During the Second Industrial Revolution, factory workers could regularly put in 16-hour workdays. Today, in most developed nations, an eight-hour workday is common. But it’s changing. The Third and now Fourth Industrial Revolutions are providing a wide range of new working options. The Internet has enabled millions of people to work for themselves and to work at home. The work is wide-ranging and includes activities such as marketing, design, software development, and administrative tasks. The five-day, 40-hour workweek is suddenly much less relevant. With an increasing emphasis on information workers in the United States, by around 2005, 30% of the workforce had become contractors, no longer tied to specific office or factory work hours and with little allegiance to any particular employer. In addition, the third wave has given way to the gig, or shared economy. By 2020, it’s estimated that the combined number of contractors and gig economy participants in the US will reach 43% of the workforce. It’s only likely to go up from there. The emergence of gig economy type work is giving people more freedom and choice. It is kicked off an ecosystem of providers that support these new types of businesses and alternative work lifestyles.
iii) Impact of Automation on Job Opportunities
Now, let’s look at the future of work through the lens of the impact of automation, specifically robots and artificial intelligence, or AI. So far, AI has been augmenting our personal and work lives for some time, creating useful efficiencies. History suggests that automation did not steal our jobs. Through three previous industrial revolutions, demand for human workers has skyrocketed. Would a Fourth Industrial Revolution be any different? There are many who will argue both sides of this. Some say jobs for humans will continue to grow and may even be more meaningful. Although they will evolve in nature and scope and then there are those who say that we’re entering a period of mass unemployment. The latter argument is based on the defining characteristics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, scope, impact, and velocity. Applied against AI and robotics, innovation suggests consequences we’ve never had to face before. We’ll need to look to the future of work with our eyes wide open.
Preparation needed for Individual in Industry 4.0
It’s important for us to understand some possible difficult employment challenges that the fourth industrial revolution may present. Being successful in a new or existing career will largely depend on the type of work that you do. Many opportunities may be lucrative right now, but looking ahead, automation may present a significant threat. There are a number of studies on the potential for automation technologies to impact human jobs. While they often differ in scale and timing, they align around a common theme.
The more the job is left-brained, predictable, and highly paid, the greater the chance for replacement by labour-saving technology. Jobs associated with machine operation, food preparation, the collection and processing of data, legal and accounting, are all candidates. Safer jobs will include those that are far less repetitive and much more creative. They include managers, scientists, healthcare providers, educators, gardeners, plumbers, and eldercare providers. Looking even further out, the new economy of the fourth industrial revolution will create amazing new employment opportunities that we can’t even imagine right now. It will create a huge need for retraining. More education will be required for jobs that have greater technical skill requirements. Unemployment could skyrocket and whole new phenomena of a class of unemployable people may emerge. These are the people who might be unable to participate in the new economy, due to limited educational or inability. For these, we’ll need new ideas and a rethinking of our social safety nets. Such as UBI (Universal Basic Income).
Our Collective Responsibility “Unlike previous industrial revolutions, the fourth revolution has no precedent with regard to the degree of impact, scope, and velocity of change. The decisions that we collectively make over the next few decades will define humanity’s destiny for a long time to come. So many of those decisions will be ethical in nature. It won’t necessarily be a question of whether we can do something; but rather a question of whether we should do something. It’s been said that with great power comes great responsibility”
"Most of the content from this article is originally published in Industry 4.0 Foundation Course Instructed by Dr Jonathan Reichental on Linkedin Learning. I strongly recommend everyone to pursue this course"
SANTHOSH GANDHI (UX Researcher)