The Fourth Industrial Revolution was the talk of Davos (the World Economic Forum – an annual meeting of global political and business elites) this year.
According to the resulting WEF report, over 7 million jobs are at risk in some of the world’s largest economies in the next five years, due to rapid technological advances in fields such as robotics and 3D printing. As such, 65% of children starting primary school will eventually work in jobs that don’t even exist yet.
But what exactly is this so-called fourth industrial revolution? And what does it mean for us?
Industrial Revolution History
Before we get started on the Fourth version, let’s recap what’s happened so far. The First Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the late 1700s using the power of steam to advance factories, railways, steamships and agriculture methods. In the latter part of the 19th century the Second Industrial Revolution was in full swing thanks to electricity. This allowed incredible developments such as mass produced consumer goods, televisions, cars and plenty of other everyday essentials.
The Third Industrial Revolution came into play in the 1970s when use of technology began to increase and we saw the beginnings of the internet, computers and so forth. Now we are supposedly headed for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, said to be defined by the melding of different technologies.
What exactly is the fourth industrial revolution?
The takeover by machines is nothing new; just look back to the luddites protesting and even destroying machinery they thought would take their livelihood from them. But the fourth industrial revolution is characterised by one key difference: speed.
It is not simply an extension of the Third Industrial Revolution, because the speed at which things are currently moving has never happened before. When you look at the previous Industrial Revolutions, they moved in a linear fashion. By comparison, the Fourth Industrial Revolution appears to be developing exponentially. It is also set to affect pretty much every industry imaginable, too, and in far-reaching ways. It’s shaking up the entire system as we know it. This is demonstrated well in the opening of an article on TechCrunch:
“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”
The reality of it
It all sounds a little sci-fi, so let’s take a look at a concrete example to help illustrate how things could change. Currently, we rely on our wonderful health care professionals to keep us healthy and help us get better when we aren’t well. We of course check ourselves for symptoms and book an appointment with our GP if something is ‘off’, but oftentimes this is based on our own intuition rather than facts. Technology may be able to help here.
We can already see bits and pieces in practice already; take FitBits or the Apple Health App. So it wouldn’t take a huge leap of faith to consider a future where technology monitors our health, flags up any issues and directs us to the relevant specialist. This would result in personal responsibility for our own healthcare. It would also seemingly bring the cost of healthcare down.
Impact on skills and education
One of the main challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is it will wipe out a lot of job roles. So educating and re-educating becomes important. As the employment landscape is set to rapidly evolve, the idea of future-proofing your skills seems increasingly sensible. Education of course, is changing too; it is no longer limited to a teacher-pupil-classroom situation. You can learn almost anything online.
The worst outcome of the Fourth Industrial Revolution would be rapid technological development combined with mass unemployment and thus increased inequality. So the workers of today need to keep up-to-date more than ever before. This of course should be taking place in schools, but what about people who are already in the job market? Businesses and government ideally need to work together and support the current workforce whilst they develop their skills. And at an individual level, lifelong learning should be prioritised.
As technology automates, our intrinsically human traits become ever important. Take the above healthcare example; a machine might be able to diagnose you with a disease but it could likely do very little to comfort you. With that in mind, there are certain human skills which may become increasingly valuable in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, such as emotional intelligence, creativity and communication.
Even if you have doubts surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is no denying that rapid technological change is taking place and will continue to do so.