We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation to the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. - Klaus Schwab
For much of human history, individual hand production was the manufacturing norm. Then, in late 18th century, the mobilization of water and steam power steered in the First Industrial Revolution marked by mechanization of production process. Nearly a century later, the introduction of electric power brought about the transition to the Second Industrial Revolution. The two World Wars that occurred during the first half of the 20th century helped fuel this revolution through rapid industrialization, mass production and advances in manufacturing and production technologies.
The Third Industrial Revolution came with the shift from analog and mechanical systems to electronic and digital technologies, which in turn led to automation of production. Along with sweeping changes that digital computing and communication technology brought about to the production process, the Third Industrial Revolution also ushered in the Information Age. Now a new industrial revolution is taking place that builds on existing digital technologies and fully computerizes the production processes.
Labeled the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or as Industrie 4.0 in Germany, where it originated as a high-tech strategy of the government to promote computerization of manufacturing, it involves the fusion of various technologies to create collaborating computational units. These new ‘cyber-physical systems’, which blur the line between physical, digital and biological spheres, network as interacting elements that provide both physical input and output. Robotic surgery in hospitals, drones that spray and irrigate fields, automated collision avoidance between vehicles, smart buildings with zero-net energy are all examples made possible by such cyber-physical systems.
Changes brought about by each new wave of industrialization are initially not welcomed by people whose lives get negatively impacted, nonetheless, over time these innovations have positively transformed lives and societies. The introduction of multi-spindle weaving in the textile industry during the first industrial revolution while impacting individual workers, helped make production of textiles faster and easier, while also fundamentally altering the social milieu of the time. Similarly, the second industrial revolution was not just about assembly lines augmenting war supplies and technology being used to increase the destructive power of weapons, it also led to raising living standards by making daily goods available and affordable to the general public. It helped empower people, especially women by enfranchising them in many countries and giving them a voice on public issues.
Again, the third industrial revolution was not just about personal computers, mobile phones and other technology becoming ubiquitous, it increased the amount of time available to children for studying and for professionals in doing their work. At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in the Swiss resort town of Davos, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of WEF noted that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its potential to empower individuals and communities, could also create new opportunities for economic, social, and personal development.
However the WEF founder warned that unless all global stakeholders, including private and public sectors, as well as academia and civil society were involved and the response was integrated and comprehensive, the new revolution risked marginalizing some groups, exacerbating inequalities, creating new security risks and undermining human relationships.
During the First Industrial Revolution, the spinning jenny and textile factories were often viewed as a threat to individual weavers, just as personal digital assistants and robotic factory lines of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are being viewed as a threat to white-collar jobs and assembly line workers. But this time around, technological advances have made it possible for ordinary people to have a say in the outcome of the new revolution.
Pointing out that the progress of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will very much depend on people, culture, and values, Mr. Schwab added that citizens, consumers and investors can, through their everyday decisions, help shape the new revolution and guide its technological progress, so that it advances common objectives and upholds universal values.
“New technologies, however remarkable they might seem, are fundamentally just tools made by people for people. We must keep this in mind, and ensure that innovation and technology continue to put people first, propelling us toward sustainable and inclusive development. I firmly believe that the new technology age, if shaped in a responsive and responsible way, could catalyze a new cultural renaissance that will create the sense that we are part of something much larger than ourselves – a true global civilization,” he added in conclusion.