What exactly is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a phenomenon where new, innovative and disruptive technologies are combining to completely and irrevocably change the way we live and work.
Although the 4IR is being driven by a number of technologies, the three main technologies are Artificial Intelligence, Networks and Cyber-physical Systems.
Thanks to these three technologies, the 4IR is giving rise to so many new breakthroughs, and with such rapidity and at such a scale, that it is disrupting nearly every industry and affecting every person on the planet.
Artificial intelligence, or AI, is the branch of computer science interested in giving computers human-like qualities, such as the ability to learn new things, to speak fluently, understand human speech, to see and recognise people and objects, and to make complex decisions.
These new-found abilities are enabling computers to do things that were only possible for human to do previously, like driving cars, flying drones and planes, operating machinery, translating speech between languages, diagnosing illnesses and dispensing medicines.
Although AI has been around since the 1950s, it could not reach its full potential due to the lack of computing power.
Computer networks refers to the vast and complex system of satellites, fibre optic cables and cellular towers that transmit data at lightening speeds across the globe, transferring unimaginable volumes of data from place to place.
These networks are what make the World Wide Web possible, enabling us to surf the web, stream videos, post to social media, communicate with one another through chat and voice and video calls, purchase items, order food, call an Uber – basically everything that we know and take for granted today.
Finally, cyber-physical systems are traditionally non-computer devices that are now being given computer power and are being connected to the internet.
For example, until recently, no one would have associated a farm animal with computing power. Yet, today cows are being fitted with tiny computers connected to sensors embedded in their bodies. These sensors constantly measure the cow’s heart rate, body temperature and other vital statistics, and transmit this data to the farm’s central server, enabling the farmer to monitor his stock and use AI to predict any outbreaks of illness before they happen.
Although these three technologies, AI, networks and cyber-physical systems have been around for a while – AI was around since the mid 1950s – they did not spark a revolution because they never combined in any meaningful way, until now.
As with so many other technologies, each of these technologies was insufficient in itself to spark a revolution, but together they are changing our world, causing a major global revolution: the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
I think a more appropriate title for the age we are living in, considering the fact that machines are now becoming ever-more capable and are beginning to be more like their human creators, is “Rise of the Machines.”
But the 4IR is not just about technology and machines. More than anything, it is about people. As with its predecessors, 4IR has the potential to increase incomes and improve standards of living; but unlike its predecessors, 4IR will not be limited to specific countries and regions.
In contrast, the 4IR is the first of the industrial revolutions that is truly global in in nature and truly democratic, providing opportunities to people who never had them. It is not a privilege reserved for a segment of the population, such as the rich, or people in developed countries; it is truly for everyone.
This is thanks to the pervasive nature of technologies such as mobile devices and the internet. Today, all a person needs is a mobile device and internet access to seize the opportunities presented by the 4IR.
The 4IR is about solving some of the most pressing problems we face, such as wealth inequality, access to healthcare, access to education, disease control, environmental degradation and global warming.
Today, people in some of the remotest parts of the world have access to the internet, enabling them to educate themselves, learn a new skill and gain access to vital services.
With nothing more than a mobile phone, few dollars and a drive to succeed, one is able start a business, sell their products or offer their services. The barriers to entry into a new business have never been lower.
There is no limit to what is possible.