There are lots of articles about the WEF and the 4th Industrial Revolution (e.g. WEF Chairman Klaus Schwab’s write up here). What’s important is to realize that it will affect all individuals on the personal level, and it definitely needs concerted effort from all (especially leaders of all nations) to make the best out of it and the reduce any undesirable impacts.
Let’s review the background of the first 3 IR – The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.
As you may aware, the Fourth IR is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace, and the impact is immense – on every one on earth, at a personal level. Many argue that it’s already started and has been ongoing for the last 5 years or so.
The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things (the network of physical objects, devices, vehicles, buildings and other items which are embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data), autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.
Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Impressive progress has been made in AI (Artificial Intelligence) in recent years, driven by exponential increases in computing power (such as facilitated by Cloud Computing) and by the availability of vast amounts of data (Big Data), from software used to discover new drugs to algorithms used to predict our interests. All these combined will have huge and increasing impacts to jobs, our health, enjoyment, also widening inequalities – i.e. all about our quality of living. Technology has made possible new products and services that increase the efficiency and pleasure of our personal lives. In the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. Transportation and communication costs will drop, logistics and global supply chains will become more effective, and the cost of trade will diminish, all of which will open new markets and drive economic growth. Many are already predicting that Singularity is near (see here if you are interested), intelligent robots who understand your emotions and can predict every need of yours is no longer a fit of imaginations. On the undesirable side, it’s been estimated that the 4th IR is going to make 5 Million jobs redundant with increasingly advanced automation, and clever algorithms, etc. (creating 2M and eliminating 7M jobs). Inequalities will widen much further with the wealthy amassing more and bigger portions of the world’s total wealth, with poorer suffering more. It’s just been revealed that 62 wealthiest people holds more wealth than the bottom half of the whole world’s population, and 1% of the population holds wealth equals to the total of the other 99% in the world!
In the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production, and may result in a job market with strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle. This will give rise to a job market increasingly segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions. Such are the challenges and opportunities brought about by this 4th IR.
With the wide spread and access of information sharing typified by social media, discontent can spread fast and wide. More than 30 percent of the global population now uses social media platforms to connect, learn, and share information. In an ideal world, these interactions would provide an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding and cohesion. However, they can also create and propagate unrealistic expectations as to what constitutes success for an individual or a group, as well as offer opportunities for extreme ideas and ideologies to spread. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will also profoundly impact the nature of national and international security, think about Cyber and advancement of biological warfare, and that they are accessible to small groups or even individual level.
The 4th IR will change not only what we do but also who we are. It will affect our identity and all the issues associated with it: our sense of privacy, our notions of ownership, our consumption patterns, the time we devote to work and leisure, and how we develop our careers, cultivate our skills, meet people, and nurture relationships. It is already changing our health and leading to a “quantified” self, and sooner than we think it may lead to human augmentation. The list is endless because it is bound only by our imagination. E.g. advances in DNA, etc makes it possible to develop drugs targeted to prevent and cure specific diseases of individuals or small groups of persons with deficiencies in certain DNA. I was told that someone has been able to prolong his life with a monthly injection of a ‘miracle drug’ at US$25,000 each!
One of the greatest individual challenges posed by new information technologies is privacy. We instinctively understand why it is so essential, yet the tracking and sharing of information about us is a crucial part of the new connectivity, and development of items to improve our lives (or survival for some).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against technological advancement and neither can anyone resist this revolution. However, in order to make the best benefits from it and reduce undesirable impacts, i.e. making the 4th IR to work for us all, all must work together, especially leaders around the world. There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril. Let me use Big Data and Cloud Computing as an example to elaborate this:
Big Data and Cloud Computing
Big Data and Cloud Computing are the most profound transformations of our time, facilitating technological advancements in not only areas of entertainment, games and enjoyment, but also in health, education and development in all areas. The massive data collected can contribute significantly to advancement and developments in drugs, treatment, disease prevention; in designing more efficient tailored training and readily provision of knowledge to all; in weather prediction and more effective ways to prevent pandemic spread, in firefighting (as a Greek University is doing in prediction of wildfires); in designing and allowing readily available entertainments that suit individual’s particular preference, taste, and interests, etc. The ways of utilizing such massive data are limitless. And Cloud Computing with the powerful hardware infrastructure available nowadays (which are extremely powerful and at ever-lowering costs) facilitates both data collection, analysis and availability. It converts guessworks and speculations into predictive and analytical power.
With such huge potential, it is obvious that we donot want such power to be only available to the wealthy few. This will create a digital divide – a widening rift where those with access to and can exploit this immense power get wealthier while those who cannot afford the access becomes increasing disadvantaged. This will definitely lead to a less harmonious world. To bridge this digital divide and to ensure that such power (and the 4th IR) is made to benefit the whole world and all human beings, a coherent policy framework with big data and cloud computing at its heart must have the following key elements:
- Investments in infrastructure to provide low cost broadband offering cloud access to the rural and poorer areas/countries.
- Build and train skills (e.g. in devising clever algorithms to efficiently analyse and extract useful data) to ensure that the huge amount of collected data do not just sit in the clouds, but gainfully utilised for the betterment of all.
- Governments to empower people to access and use the public data in the cloud, and to lead by example in allowing such data access by the public. Also more importantly to educate and enforce proper and lawful use of such data and respect of privacy.
- Balanced regulatory environment that both protects security and privacy while enabling free data flow across boundaries. Cyber security is extremely important in all levels from national, corporate to individual and significant investments must be made in this area, as evident from the fact that successful cyber attacks on just businesses increased by 144% between 2010 and 2014. In 2014 alone, it was estimated that the cost of cyber attacks to the world economy was 445 billions!
Such framework would encourage widespread use of the public cloud for public good. I quote a successful example where poor Kenyans in rural villages got access to cheap solar lighting at just 40 cents a day via an innovative mobile phone payment system .
To this end, I’m also glad to see that the innovation frontier leaders of the world have recognised the importance and potential of cloud computing. Bill Gates (Microsoft) will donate US$1 billion in cloud computer resources over the next 3 years to serve over 70,000 non-profit and non-government organisations. A similar donation was also pledged by Elon Musk (Tesler). More importantly, I think businesses, governments and NGO’s must all come together to harness the public cloud for public good and ensure this huge potential and benefits are made available and shared as widely as possible in a controlled manner, i.e. made to work for the betterment of all mankind.