Next tech Frontier: Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution have a human heart

If you think the answer is “yes” to all of these questions, you are not alone. The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society recently organized a poll asking those very questions.

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Imagine you could travel ten years into the future. Do you think we will have 3D printed cars? Do you think we will have robotic pharmacies, implantable mobile phones, 3D printed liver transplants? Do you think we will have machines that will read our mind?

If you think the answer is “yes” to all of these questions, you are not alone. The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software and Society recently organized a poll asking those very questions. More than 75 per cent of respondents saw many of them as realistic. We are about to witness a Fourth Industrial Revolution, impacting every aspect of our societies. Will the impact be for the better or for the worse?

To answer that question, let me start by explaining what this Fourth Industrial Revolution is, and how it differs from previous ones.

First, why is it the Fourth Industrial Revolution? The first industrial revolution happened in the late 1700s, and brought us mechanical production through the steam engine, cotton spinning and railroads. The second happened around the turn of the 20th century and brought us mass production through the assembly line and electricity. And the third industrial revolution was the computer revolution, starting in the 1960s, that brought us mainframe and personal computing, as well as the Internet.

Today we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, different to all the previous ones, and which will affect governments, businesses, and economies in very substantial ways. We should not underestimate the change ahead of us, as there are at least 3 differences between this revolution and the previous ones:

  • The first difference is the speed. Previous industrial revolutions took decades to unfold. Today’s revolution is engulfing us like a tsunami.
  • The second difference is that it is not related to one area. It is not just about mobile networks, or sensors. It’s also about nano-technology, about brain research, about 3d printing, materials science, computing, networks, and about the interplay and the accessibility between all of them. This combination will create a very strong force.
  • The last difference is that this revolution is not about a product or service innovation; it is a systems innovation. Just look at the personal transport sharing platform Uber. It is not producing new cars, it is producing an entirely new mobility system. It is creating the shared economy.

That brings us to the question where the impact will happen. In short, the impact will be everywhere. Let me give three examples.

What will be the impact on business and economies? Entrepreneurship and agility will become much more important, and generally, small and medium enterprises have such agility more than incumbents. That is why I believe that in the future, we won’t see competition where the big fish eats the small fish. It will be the fast fish that eats the slow fish. Take Google as an example, which created Alphabet as a platform for several smaller and more focused businesses. In banking, the “fintech” or financial technology revolution will cause rapid disintermediation. In the end, the business model of each industry will be restructured.

 

What will be the impact on skills and labour? In the past we had creative destruction. Jobs that were destroyed by innovation could be replaced by other ones in other sectors. But now we are not sure anymore whether that will happen. Technology will replace many jobs in the upper-skilled sector. Only countries that are preparing for this, by upskilling and reskilling, will win.

What will be its impact on governments? I believe governments will be more important than ever before. Indeed, in this fast paced new world, the increased pace of innovation will have to be followed by an increased pace of evolving standards and rules in government. Thus, governments can approach the upcoming revolution in two ways. They could either say: ‘everything that is not forbidden is allowed’. Or they could say: ‘everything that is not allowed is forbidden’. In the end, they will have to find a middle way.

Importantly, will the Fourth Industrial Revolution have a human heart and soul? Imagine again living in the future, where robots and humans live side by side. Who would you trust, human or robot? Concretely:

  • If you were diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and a human doctor prescribed you a treatment regime A, while an artificial robot prescribed treatment regime B: which treatment regime would you follow?
  • If you were falsely accused of a crime, would you rather be judged by a human judge or by an AI judge?

These are not necessarily hypothetical questions. IBM’s Watson robot already helps recommend leukemia treatments at MD Anderson in the US. Thus, we must be better prepared for this industrial revolution and its effects, and we have to start now. We have to think about these issues in an integrated way. We have to bring together the public sector, the private sector, and the best minds in this world. And we have to define issues in a proactive way, and create solutions and possible actions.

I believe that if managed well, the Fourth Industrial Revolution can bring us a new cultural renaissance, that makes us feel part of something much larger than ourselves: a true global civilization. I believe the changes that will sweep through society can provide a more inclusive, sustainable and harmonious society. But it will not come easy.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt, at our Annual Meeting in Davos this year, warned us that we could see a battle between humans and robots. In this economic struggle, there are two possible outcomes. The Fourth Industrial Revolution could deprive humanity of its heart and soul. Or it could lift humanity to a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. We can choose this latter option if we work together and create role models for humans and robots. Let’s make sure that humans win, and that we cultivate the human traits of belonging, creativity, and feelings in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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