At the World Economic Forum (WEF ) in Davos this year, the theme was “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” As always, I began preparing for the annual intellectual training camp in the Swiss Alps on my Finnair flight from Helsinki to Zurich.
This time I did it by reading The Fourth Industrial Revolution by WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, whose book reminded me how the first industrial revolution, which spanned a century from the mid-1700s onwards, marked the transition from muscle power to mechanical power while the second industrial revolution (late 19th century to early 20th century) saw the invention of electricity and the assembly line.
The third industrial revolution began in the 1960s and has often been called the computer or digital revolution because it was catalysed by the development of semiconductors, mainframe computing, personal computing, and finally the internet in the 1990s.
Schwab’s argument is that the fourth industrial revolution began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. Characterised by mobile internet, smaller and more powerful sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning, this revolution is unlike anything mankind has experienced before. It will change the way we live, work and relate to each other. Artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, nano- and biotechnology, new forms of energy, material science and quantum computing are changing the world faster than we realise.
The revolution will disrupt business (it already has). It will also change the way we manufacture, transport, consume, produce, and trade. Think about it. Facebook does not provide content, Uber does not own taxis (well, not yet any way) and Airbnb does not own real estate.
Do you remember life before the smart phone? Well, my kids don’t. Their kids will probably not remember the time before a 3D printer provided them with new sneakers, self-driving electric cars took them to school, and all payments were electronic and guaranteed through a block chain.
The fourth industrial revolution will also change the way in which we work. Some studies estimate that half of today’s jobs will be taken over by machines by 2030. This will have far-reaching economic, political, and sociological implications. We will have to work smarter, not harder.
At the end of the day, everything will depend on how we manage this huge change, including the accompanying moral and ethical issues — from nano robot surgery to gene manipulation and robot soldiers and the inevitable winners and losers of the transformation.
As always, we can approach the fourth industrial revolution as tech-optimists or tech-pessimists. The optimist embraces the change and looks for solutions. The pessimist hits the brakes and reverts back to old ways.
The more technology advances, the more emotional intelligence and empathy come to the fore. The only thing we can’t be is realistic. Why? Because the only thing limiting this revolution is our imagination and machines.
Welcome to the future.