Thursday, January 28, 2016

Predicting the Future: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Klaus Schwab, the guy who runs the annual Davos Switzerland World Economic Forum of “very important people” in the world, has generated a book with the title of this year's meeting, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” about a future that is both terrifying and optimistic.  Despite its gobbledegook, committee-speak, and bullet points, it provides a lot of fascinating information and is well worth a look. After doing a quick read-through, I’m starting a second more careful read and clicking through to many of the references (the kindle version is handy for this.)
The first industrial revolution spanned from about 1760 to around 1840. Triggered by the construction of railroads and the invention of the steam engine, it ushered in mechanical production. The second industrial revolution, which started in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, made mass production possible, fostered by the advent of electricity and the assembly line. The third industrial revolution began in the 1960s. It is usually called the computer or digital revolution because it was catalysed by the development of semiconductors, mainframe computing (1960s), personal computing (1970s and 80s) and the internet (1990s). Mindful of the various definitions and academic arguments used to describe the first three industrial revolutions, I believe that today we are at the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution. It began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It is characterized by a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.
I am well aware that some academics and professionals consider the developments that I am looking at as simply a part of the third industrial revolution. Three reasons, however, underpin my conviction that a fourth and distinct revolution is underway:
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.

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