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The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is not on its way… It’s here! The world, as it looks now, has completely transformed from the world we knew ten years ago, and will further continue to be transformed. In the next twenty years, the world is going to change more than we have ever seen before (Baruch, 2019). 

The ‘concept’ of digitising everything has now become a reality. With automation, artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IOT), machine learning, and the numerous other advances in technology, we are able to more efficiently capture a wealth of data, thus allowing for us to access previously-unimaginable amounts and types of data to work from (Deloitte Insights, 2018).  Thus, bringing about the great challenge- moving to the next phase- with the many diverse and fascinating challenges that we already face as a society, the most intense and important of those may be said to be the efforts to understand and shape the new technology revolution (Schwab, 2016). 

With many researchers suggesting that the 4IR is unlike any other revolution that humankind has ever faced with regard to its scope and complexity. As such, we need not only adopt a mindset change, but an overall transformation in the way we live, work, train and teach, and relate to one another. We may consider the idea that, although we create technology, technology creates us in return (Davis, 2018).

In this paper we will further look at the triggers and driver of the 4IR, the impact on employment, businesses, and market research, challenges and opportunities that arise with the revolution, as well as the responsibility that we incur as ‘participants’ of the 4IR. 

What is the 4IR?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has been dubbed “Industry 4.0” (a term reminiscent of software versioning (Lasi, Kemper, Fettke, Feld, & Hoffman, 2014) and is unlike any other revolution in that it will bring further technological innovation and transformation to essentially every aspect of life- not just businesses (Madubela, 2019)

Studies (Schwab, 2016 & McKinsey, 2019), suggest that we are yet to fully grasp the speed and breadth of the new revolution, considering the rapid, complex, and interdependent changes we are faced with today, which has led to a hyper-connected world with infinite possibilities and consequences (Cantemir, 2018)- what with having billions of people being connected by mobile devices thus giving rise to unprecedented power, storage capabilities, not to mention access to knowledge and information at the click of a button (Schwab, 2016). 

Schwab (2016), suggests looking further into the confluence of emerging technological breakthroughs which cover a wide range of fields such as AI, robotics, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing- most of which were in their infancy stages just a few years ago. However, with the constant developments in technological systems, we are already able to witness great advances in these areas. 

What triggered this revolution?

The word “revolution” implies an abrupt and radical change in favour of a new and often better system. Revolutions are evident throughout history and are typically triggered by the development of new technologies, as well as a shift in the way we perceive the world. 

The ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ has become a buzz word of late, while the term was first coined in 2015 by the World Economic Forum Chairman, Klaus Schwab who described the technological phenomenon as a revolution which may be characterised by the merging of technologies which in effect blurs the lines that separates the physical, digital, and biological spheres (Madubela, 2019). One may say that we have gone from multi-tasking to ‘multi-lifing’, as suggested the by Sherry Turkle (2011), an idea which we will delve deeper into later in this paper. 

Although the magnitude of the scope and impact of Industry 4.0 is immensely greater than any other revolution (Schwab, 2016). Mckinsey (2018), stated that “compared to the first industrial revolution, we estimate that this change is happening ten (10) times faster and at three hundred (300) times the scale, or roughly three thousand (3,000) times the impact”. 

The first three industrial revolutions offered the world water and steam power, electricity, and digitization, globalisation, and interconnectedness (Hinton, 2018). Furthermore, with the rise of each industrial revolution come ‘refining shifts’ to social, economic, environmental, and even political systems which, although sounds extreme, does in fact alter the course of humanity (Hinton, 2018). 

The key distinction, therefore, lies in looking at technology from a systems level as opposed to an individual technology level. That is, the third industrial revolution brought about the development of digital and technological infrastructure, while Industry 4.0 speaks to the application of these cyber-physical systems (Mail&Guardian, 2019).

Drivers

Schwab (2016), suggests that numerous organisations have compiled lists which seek to rank the various technologies that they believe will drive the fourth industrial revolution, however, with the constant unfolding of new technologies and scientific breakthroughs, the lists seem limitless. He (Schwab, 2016), provides a selection of a few key technology drivers based on research carried out by the Wold Economic Forum, as well as the work of the Forum’s Global Agenda Councils:

  • Megatrends

Schwab (2016) states that all new developments and technologies can be said to have one key common feature- that is, “they leverage the pervasive power of digitisation and information technology”. As such, we must not underestimate the significance of digital power. For instance, gene sequencing would not be possible without the progress made in computing power and data analytics. Similarly, advanced robots would not exist had it not been for artificial intelligence, which itself, depends largely on computing power (Schwab, 2016).

The following is a list of ‘sub-trends’ which Schwab (2016) had identified in order to determine the megatrends and convey the broader landscape of technological drivers for Industry 4.0. Furthermore, each of these are ‘deeply interrelated’ and the various technologies benefit from one another based on the progress as well as discoveries made in each category:

  • Physical

It is suggested that there are four (4) main physical manifestations of the technological megatrends:

  • Autonomous Vehicles

Vehicles that drive themselves- no longer limited to the automobile or standard car, there are now many other autonomous vehicles including trucks, aircrafts, drones, and even boats. This may be considered as a liberation for the disable-bodied community (Baruch, 2019).

With the advancement in technological processes and systems such as sensors and AI, the capabilities of autonomous machines are improving and perhaps evolving at a rapid pace. 

Furthermore, as the capabilities of drones are more refined and more sensitive to sensing and responding to their environments as well as adapt as changes occur, drones will possess the ability to change flight paths and avoid collisions, they will be able to be employed for tasks such as assessing electric power lines, delivering medical supplies in war zones for example, and when combined with data analytics capabilities, even go as far as measuring more precise and efficient use of fertilizer and water in agriculture (Schwab, 2016). 

  • 3D Printing

 

Also referred to as additive manufacturing, this application consists of creating a physical/tangible object based on a digital 3D drawing or model by printing layer upon layer until the desired object is formed (Schwab, 2016).

Until now, the manufacturing process has been subtractive in that, layers are removed from a piece of material until the desired shape is obtained. 3D printing by contrast, started with loose materials and then builds the object into shape using the digital template. With the wide range of uses, 3D printing can be applied to large objects such as wind turbines, or small objects such as medical implants (Schwab, 2016). 

Moreover, as a result of the rapid and continuous developments of technologies, researchers have already begun their work towards 4D printing. That being a process creating a new generation of self-altering products which are able to respond and adapt to the environmental changes such as heat and humidity- this may be used for clothing, footwear, and even medical implants (Schwab, 2016).

  • Advanced Robotics

Previously, much of the technological advances were confined to specific industries such as the automotive sector, however, today, the use of robots has spanned across all sectors for a wide range of tasks including, but not limited to precision agriculture and nursing (Schwab, 2016).

Additionally, robots are being built to be more adaptive and flexible, with functional and even structural designs inspired by complex biological structures- an extension of a process known as ‘biomimicry’, whereby the patterns and strategies of nature are imitated (Schwab, 2016).

Furthermore, with the advances in programming, robots are able to access information remotely via the cloud and further connect with a network of other robots and the internet- thus giving them access to information that humans may still need to search for and in some instances, not have access to (Davis, 2018). 

  • New Materials

Not only are new products coming to market, but also new materials which on a whole, appear to be lighter, stronger, recyclable, and adaptive (Schwab, 2016). It goes as far as having applications for smart materials which are able to self-heal and self-clean. Metals with memory- whereby they revert to their original shapes; ceramics and crystals that turn pressure into energy, just to name a few (Schwab, 2016). The possibilities seem endless.

  • Digital

Schwab (2016), states that one of the main connections between the physical and digital applications brought about by Industry 4.0 is IoT- the internet of things- whereby most things are connected to the internet and considered ‘smart’. It may further be described as the relationship between things (products, places, services, and the like) and people which is made possible by connected technologies and various platforms (Schwab, 2016).

Virtual reality devices somewhat give rise to the ability to access an alternate dimension at the touch of a button. Remote monitoring is another aspect where IoT is applied where any package, pallet, or container can be equipped with a sensor, transmitter, or radio frequency identification (RFID) device, thus allowing companies or individuals to track the parcel as it moves (Schwab, 2016). 

The digital revolution is creating fundamentally new approaches which transform the way in which people and organisations engage and collaborate (Schwab, 2016).

  • Biological

The Human Genome Project took more than ten (10) years and $2.7 billion to complete- as a result, today, a genome can be sequenced in less than a few hours at a cost of less than a thousand dollars (Schwab, 2016). Studies suggest that with the advances in computing power, scientists no longer work on a trial and error basis, but rather test the way in which specific genetic variations generate particular traits and diseases. Needless to say, innovations in the biological realm, specifically relating to genetics, is nothing short of breath-taking!

“Synthetic biology is the next step” states Schwab. This will give rise to the ability to customise organisms by writing DNA. The ability to edit biology can be applied to any cell type, thus allowing for the creation of genetically modified plants and animals, this includes modifying the cells of adult organisms- including humans (Schwab, 2016).

Moreover, 3D manufacturing is on its way to being combined with genetic editing in an effort to produce living tissue for the purpose of tissue repair and regeneration- this is referred to as ‘bioprinting’ and speaks back to the point of these applications coming together to enrich each other (Schwab, 2016).

The Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Economy

Previous Industrial Revolutions have forced society to undergo intense and often painful processes of adaptation. For instance, from rural or largely agricultural societies to urban societies, industrial societies, and then to post-industrial societies which encompassed dealing with the loss of traditional industries as well as forms and sources of employment (NICVA, 2019). The 4IR has and will continue to have a significant impact on the global economy as a whole, so much so, that due to its multifaceted nature, it will become difficult to extricate one specific effect from the next (Schwab, 2016). 

Schwab (2016), suggests that the 4IR has brought about a divide in economists- some being ‘techno-optimists’, with others being ‘techno-pessimists’. The optimists believe that technology and innovation are at a point of inflection, thus will unleash a surge in productivity which will feed into the growth of the economy. While the pessimists on the other hand, argue that critical contributions of the digital revolution have already been established, thus their impact on productivity should in fact be nearing its end (Schwab, 2016).

  Employment

Studies suggest that despite the potential positive impact of technology on economic growth, it remains essential to address the possibility of a negative impact- perhaps on a short-term basis (Schwab, 2016). Over the years, along with the introduction of new revolutions, there has always existed the debate surrounding the evidence of computers substituting for a number of jobs- these are roles such as, bookkeepers, cashiers, and telephone operators (Schwab, 2016). Now, with the new technological advances, the upheaval will surely be provoked once again. The fourth industrial revolution seems to be creating fewer jobs in new industries than in previous revolutions, while in fact, some developments have rather replaced humans in their daily roles (Schwab, 2016). AI offers an entirely unparalleled level of productivity and augments our lives in many ways.

With technology performing jobs with accuracy, speed, low cost in the long-term, one can’t help but wonder which sector or job will be next. While in fact, sooner than expected, the work of professionals such as lawyers, financial analysts, doctors, journalists, accountants, vehicle operators, call centre staff, and insurance underwriters have or will be either partially or completely automated (Schwab, 2016). 

Education

With the technological developments as well as the so called ‘algorithmic revolution’ in our midst, the current systems are not designed for the rapid rate at which change has been brought about (NICVA, 2019). 

Moreover, the issue has been raised which suggests that Education, like other systems, is struggling to cope, as a result, there exists a somewhat inevitable gap in the skills necessary to function successfully. 

Jobs as well as the competencies required are said to be changing at such a swift rate that our learning system is unable to keep up with the change and even the demand (NICVA, 2019).

From a specifically South African (SA) context, it has been suggested by education specialist, Professor Nosisi Feza, that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has been a huge challenge for the education sector as it is evident that SA is in fact still battling to perfect the challenges introduced by the Third Industrial Revolution- particularly in the rural areas (SABC, 2019). 

In an effort to remedy this and keep up with the ever-advancing digitised world, the Department of Basic Education is currently training thousands of educators in coding, while the subject is aimed to be piloted in a thousand schools across five (5) provinces as at 2020 (SABC, 2019). However, Feza cautions and states that the implementation of advanced technology will rather be a burden on the already over-worked teachers, as well as on the students who are struggling to grasp basic mathematics, the sciences, and languages (SABC, 2019).

“In rural schools, there are a lot of challenges in terms of rolling out … using technology in teaching and learning and also training teachers very well on how to use this technology. I think we need to take a breath as a country and stop trending and focus on who we are and where we are, and develop from where we are, because we are going to make mistakes that are similar to ones that have done in the past,” explains Feza (SABC, 2019). Sadly, SADTU (The South African Democratic Teacher’s Union), states that they do in fact share Feza’s concerns. 

It is therefore essential that government also shows commitment in their attempts to upskill and close the gaps facing not only the learners and teachers, but the country as a whole. In order to begin bridging the gaps with which we are faced, we need not only realise these, but also begin to change our mindsets and behaviours. All stakeholders, from education to employment and beyond, need to be connected at a low cost (NICVA, 2019). Education needs to change in terms of its model- that is, from a teaching to a learning model, whereby we find ways to better keep learners engaged and motivated with new ways of learning, as well as look at an improved method of measuring competencies. John Baruch (2019), stated emphatically that we are destroying a lot of the creativity in our education systems- no longer should learners be expected to simply remember what the textbook said, but rather be able to apply concepts of what they learned in different, ever- changing scenarios (NICVA, 2019). Furthermore, it is essential that business buys in and becomes involved in education. No longer can corporations be ignorant to what is being taught at a schooling level, since it is what they learn that will thereafter be applied in the business world- relevance is essential (NICVA, 2019).

 

What is Our Responsibility?

As mentioned, in a world that is progressing at an incredibly rapid pace, it can become difficult to maintain our humanity and engage in relationships with those around us. Furthermore, there is a paradox that is essential for us to confront- where we constantly insist our world is increasingly complex, yet have created a communication culture, with the use of technologies, that has decreased the perceived time that we have to sit and think without interruptions (Turkle, 2011). People are comforted by the idea of being in touch with many, many people- that is, with the use of connecting via social media and platforms alike, while at the same time avoid real relationships and even conversations. With human relationships being rich and demanding, they can become messy, as such, Turkle (2012) suggests that we clean it up by not having meaningful conversations and limiting our human contact instances.

We have come to a point whereby we have ramped up not only the volume, but also the velocity of communication with all sorts of instant communication applications at our fingertips, thus we also expect fast answers (Turkle, 2011). We tend to dumb down our communication, even for matters that are of most importance (Turkle, 2012).

With having our cellular devices with us at every turn, we have become dependant on living on our phones/screens (Turkle, 2012), so much so, that we become anxious when we do not have it with us. We are constantly texting, checking emails, checking our screens to look for messages, scrolling through social media posts- essentially, what we have is the ability to ‘check out’ of reality at any moment and be absorbed into a virtual reality (Turkle, 2012). Hence, we have gone from multitasking to ‘multi-lifing’. We must ensure that we maintain and defend what it means to be human, in a world where technology is taking the wheel- both literally and metaphorically (Turkle, 2012). 

The ability to be alone or to be bored is no longer something that we are able to handle. The issue then lies in the idea that we cannot be alone and enjoy moment of solitude wherein we connect with ourselves (Turkle, 2011). As such, we only experience loneliness- for many, connectivity offers the illusion of companionship (Turkle, 2011). Finally, if we are unable to be bored and constantly need some form of activity, we will lose our ability for creativity. Studies have shown that people who experience boredom allow their minds to be elsewhere which allows for our most creative thoughts to come to light (Davis, 2018).

Further than our responsibility to be human as well as empower ourselves, we have the responsibility to engage and empower others. A revolutionary is not just a revolutionary for themselves or their family, but for the broader sense of community and future generations (Davis, 2018). Consider the idea that – as at 2018- approximately 4.1 billion people around the world do not have access to the internet; 2.4 billion people without access to water and sanitation; 2 billion people without access to electricity or energy; and the 600 million farmers who haven’t even gone through the first industrial revolution (Davis, 2018). 

Davis (2018) states, ‘the greatest social injustice of any technological revolution, is those who are left behind’- something which we must keep in mind, and try, as much as possible, to change, as we move forward and enjoy the luxuries offered by each revolution. 

 

Conclusions

The concept of digitising everything has become a reality with automation, the internet of things and artificial intelligence. We are in the midst of an age wherein we are able to access previously unimagined amounts and type of data as a result of the incredible advances in technology. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is unlike any of the three previous revolutions in terms of its complexity and magnitude- it is the revolution of systems as well as infrastructure which was first developed in the Third Industrial Revolution. 

Industry 4.0 is characterised by the merging of technologies which blurs the lines that have previously separated the physical, digital, and biological spheres. With megatrends such as autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, advanced robotics, the development of new typed of materials which are self-cleaning and some that are self-healing, smart devices, remote tracking, and synthetic biology, the possibilities are infinite and nothing short of breath-taking. 

However, with all the great advancement made, it seems that the 4Ir has proven to have created less job opportunities in comparison to the previous revolutions, whereby technological creations are rather taking over some of the roles previously carried out by humans, and at a faster and more accurate rate- making it more efficient. 

It is further suggested that the Education sector should be targeted to avoid the loss of jobs and in order to upskill people. We need to take it back to basics and improve learning at the educational level, as opposed to introducing practical learning interventions only at a working/corporate level. 

The responsibilities lie with us to control the technology that we have created, rather than letting technology recreate us to a point where we no longer know how to be human and rely on technology and muti-lifing capabilities as well as perceived human contact. 

 

References