In this age of virtual reality goggles, smart homes, and automated vehicles, the term "4th Industrial Revolution" becomes more and more relevant. Coined by the founder of the World Economic Forum Professor Klaus Schwab, this term has caused countless debates amongst politicians, academics, and business leaders. In his book, "The 4th Industrial Revolution", Professor Schwab discusses how we are entering an era where technology can often be indistinguishable from our natural selves. This merging of physical, natural, biological, and digital realms defines the 4th industrial revolution.
But before we delve deeper into the current digital age, let us take a quick look at how our technology has progressed over the last few centuries. From manual labor to mechanical systems, and from mechanical systems to programmed automated machines, humankind has taken one giant leap after another in terms of technological advances. The current digital age is simply the next step in that direction with all of our accreted knowledge culminating into something we are experiencing daily.
The first industrial revolution started in 1760 and is often associated with the commercial viability of the steam engine. Thanks to James Watt's design, mechanical production methods started replacing hand production methods in Great Britain. This lead to new factories, new manufacturing processes, and more production. "The Spinning Jenny," coupled with steam power gave an enormous boost to the British textile industry. The revolution steadily spread to other parts of Europe and North America. Academicians estimate that the first industrial lasted till the 1830s.
After a lull in inventions during the mid-19th century, technology picked up the pace again in the 1870s. The discovery of how to generate, distribute, and use of electricity was the key ingredient in kick-starting the second industrial revolution, which is also known as the technological revolution. With electricity and light bulb, we started to get more productive hours and were able to create mass production lines. The oil, steel, and rail industries also benefitted from the internal combustion engine and electricity. This era lasted until the beginning of World War I in 1914.
Some argue that the third industrial revolution started in the late 1960s. This era is defined by advances in transistors, integrated circuits, microprocessors, computing, digital inventions, the internet, and sustainable use of nuclear energy. With personal computing and the internet, a whole new horizon opened up that never existed before. Mass production of semiconductors, digital equipment, and better designs allowed computers to be affordable to the general public.
In his speech delivered in 2016 in Davos, Professor Schwab argued that the current state of digital technology deserved to be called the fourth industrial. What separates this revolution from its predecessors is an intermingling of technology and our lives. Consider the examples of speech recognition, facial recognition, voice-activated vehicles or virtual assistants, artificial intelligence (AI), and sensors that can identify health challenges. We are using these tools every day without even noticing how closely they have now integrated with our beings.
Another hallmark of the fourth industrial revolution is how fast technology changes and how quickly we adapt to it. The telephone reached 100 million customers in 75 years. Instagram racked up 100 million users in 2 years, and Pokemon GO in 1 month. 3D printers are in our space stations and also empowering us to bring designs to the physical world quickly and inexpensively. You can now get a 3D printed bone to replace the broken bone inside your body. People have implanted RFID microchips inside their hands that allows them to pay at a store or pass security check with just a flick of their arms. How much closer to technology can you get?
Governments and organizations are also quick to embrace the new technologies that are dished out at incredible speed. Shipment of 3D printed material is expected to rise from 200,000 in 2015 to 2.4 million by 2020. Of course, not every organization or government can match the rhythm. And those who cannot run the risk of becoming obsolete.
With significant advances come risks. This latest revolution is no exception. With so many devices linked together and data being processed with computational clouds, there is an unprecedented risk of a security breach, data theft, and identity theft. Data mining has become one of the biggest industries of the 21st century as corporations try to create consumer profiles. Lawsuits related to corporate and government eavesdropping are now a common occurrence. And disappointing massive data leaks from banks, government agencies, and other organizations that we should be able to trust and also becoming everyday occurrences.
The threats not only come from data breaches but also the changing nature of work. Alongside the 4th industrial revolution, we are experiencing the age of reskilling. Reskilling will help workers take on new tasks as their old tasks are taken over by robots and automation, but we'll discuss that in another article soon!
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