If you haven’t heard that we are amid the Fourth Industrial Revolution, don’t worry. We will bring you up to speed, so that you can contribute (with confidence) to the next dinner party conversation, about this fascinating and mind-boggling era.
What is the 4th Industrial Revolution?
As we know the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Industrial Revolutions used new technologies, like steam, electricity and electronics to transform production and consequently changed the way humans interact with the world. We are now in the 4th Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, which is fundamentally and radically changing the way we work, live and relate to one another.
This era is built on the 3rd digital revolution and is characterised by a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital and biological realms. It has been said that humankind has never experienced the scale, scope and complexity of this technological transformation before. It’s unprecedented.
The rate of change is exponential and disrupting almost every industry ‘norm’ across the planet. Let’s take the infinite possibilities that have been created by billions of humans being connected by mobile devices and on social networks. Take this global connectivity and multiply it with emerging technology developments in fields like artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. Today we are witnessing the impressive progress of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in self-driving cars, drones, and virtual assistants. This is the 4th Industrial Revolution.
What the 4th Industrial Revolution brings
As each revolution evolved, so it presented both opportunity and challenge. The 4th Revolution is predicted to raise global income levels and improve the quality of human life. However, consumers who have traditionally gained the most, are those who are able to afford access to the digital world. Daily activities like: catching an Uber cab, booking a flight, buying a product, listening to music, or playing a game—any of these can now be done remotely. Will the 4th revolution only improve the lives of some humans and will it drive further social inequality as a result? Societal inequality is one of the greatest concerns associated with the 4th Industrial Revolution.
The exponential advances in technology are considered one of the main reasons why incomes have stagnated, or even decreased, for a majority of the population in high-income countries. This is because the demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The ‘new’ job market is predicted to be segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions.
The Impact on Business as we know it
With technological innovation supply chain are transforming, and entirely new ways are being created to serve existing needs. This is significantly disrupting the norms of industry. Gains are being made in efficiency and productivity, which in turn will drive costs down of transportation and communication. New markets are opening, thereby stimulating economic growth where innovation exists. Think Google and Amazon.
The demand chain is also being interrupted as consumer behaviour evolves towards more of a ‘sharing’ and ‘on-demand’ type of economy. Think Airbnb, Car-pooling and Netflix for movies on demand. Consumers are demanding more corporate transparency, responsibility and increased brand engagement. They have access to a world of data and companies are being forced to adapt the way they design, market, communicate and deliver their products and services.
The Human Factor
With more than 30 percent of the global population using social networks, the ability to connect and share information has become integral to our daily lives. However, the pervasiveness of digital technologies like social media can lead to discontent and unrealistic ideals about what constitutes ‘happiness’ and ‘satisfaction’ for individuals and groups. Social media can and is also be used to spread extreme and radical ideologies.
Considering that private data is available in public spaces like social networks, it’s not surprising that privacy will continue to be one of the greatest challenges presented by new information technologies. The advancements being made in biotechnology and AI are challenging the natural thresholds of a human lifespan, our health, and capabilities. Basically, redefining what it is to be human. This will mean we will need to redefine our moral and ethical boundaries.
How ready is South Africa for the 4th Industrial Revolution?
Currently, South Africa is underprepared for Industry 4.0. However, it is not badly underprepared.
According to AT Kearney associate Mark Saunders, who is carrying out studies on behalf of the World Economic Forum on the readiness of countries for future production technologies and processes. Countries have been assigned to one of four categories. These are Global Leaders, Legacy Champions, Followers and High Potential. Based on preliminary studies South Africa is a ‘Follower’ – defined as follows: Has a limited current manufacturing base but are underprepared for Industry 4.0 and are at risk for the future.
S.A.’s Strengths and Weaknesses
“Local manufacturing sectors that are currently doing well are radio, television and professional equipment; food and beverages; petroleum, chemical products, rubber and plastic products; motor vehicles and parts; and wood and wood products and paper. The electrical machinery sector is neither growing nor declining. Sectors that are doing badly are basic iron, steel and metal products and machinery; textiles and clothing; and furniture. However, its weaknesses include rising costs of production, relatively low productivity levels, lack of highly skilled labour and uncertainty about government policy.” Comments Saunders.
“Human capital is important,” emphasised Saunders. Without adequately prepared human capital, a country will not be able to harness the new production technologies. And if South African manufacturing is not ready for Industry 4.0, the result will only be more job losses, as markets will be lost to foreign competitors using the new technologies.
Trade and Industry Minister Dr. Rob Davies said: “We are in an era in which the premium for innovation has become significantly raised. We need to prepare ourselves as a country. Industry 4.0 will cause “disruptive change” in manufacturing, not just incremental change.”
He concluded that DTI needed to strengthen its cooperation with the industrial sector and the Department of Science and Technology to more efficiently convert a greater proportion of local innovations into commercial products. The country already has several agencies and initiatives acting in this regard.
There’s still no Crystal Ball
Despite the exponential advancement of technologies, we still don’t have a crystal ball. We are not sure how the 4th Industrial Revolution will unfold. What we should be mindful of is that as our worlds become more ‘robotised’ that we don’t become ‘dehumanised’. As a species, our innate ability to empathise, to create and to nurture gives us heart and soul. We shouldn’t allow technology to deprive humanity of these unique attributes. On the other hand, it also has the potential to elevate humanity into a shared collective and higher moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny.
It’s happening like it or not. It’s how we choose to respond that will matter most.
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Original article appeared in Foreign Affairs
Additional Source: Engineering News