The 4th Industrial Revolution: What to Know, Along With the Short and Long-term Benefits for Mankind
Updated: Aug 21, 2022
Children are taught in history class about the industrial revolution and how it impacted business and industry development globally. When many think of the industrial revolution, images like iron, steel, steam-powered machines, and others get conjured.
However, the industrial revolution does not just refer to a specific period in the 18th century. The term industrial revolution has evolved to refer to a period where technological developments have ushered in changes that impact both economic and societal changes.
In Klaus Schwab's book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus describes an industrial revolution as "the appearance of new technologies and novel ways of perceiving the world [that] trigger a profound change in economic and social structures.” To put that even more simply: technology is bringing about change for the better.
In brief, the fourth industrial revolution refers to using digital technologies to provide a more connected world with quick access to information on a massive scale.
But to what exactly does the fourth industrial revolution refer? And what about the first three that came before it? Will there be a fifth industrial revolution? I will cover these topics and more, so continue reading on!
A Very Brief History of the First Three Industrial Revolutions
The First: Steam-Power
As stated earlier, this immediately comes to mind when most people think of the industrial revolution.
The first industrial revolution brought about changes in the production of goods. Before the first revolution, most goods produced were agricultural (i.e., grown from the land) or hand-made.
Machines like the steam engine and the spinning jenny revolutionized the creation of goods and the speed of their development.
Materials like steel and iron were now regularly used to produce goods. In addition, energy sources previously considered unconventional, like coal and steam, were utilized.
At the heart of the first industrial revolution were factories and the lifestyle changes that they brought. People moved from rural areas into cities where factories were built, causing production speed to increase further.
The Second: The Age of Modern Science and Mass Production
Now that technology was becoming more developed and less primitive than in the past, this provided more opportunities for innovators to create and develop new products and services.
The usage of products like gasoline engines, airplanes, and other devices were created and frequently used to produce goods at a more massive scale during this period.
Additionally, the assembly line was created and developed around this time. The assembly line was critical for vehicles to become affordable for consumers. While Henry Ford is most commonly associated with its development through the production of the Model T line of cars, the credit goes to Ransom E. Olds for inventing and utilizing the assembly line to produce the first mass-produced vehicle in 1901, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash.
People continued moving from rural areas into cities where factories were built, causing cities to become even more densely populated. In 1800, only 6% of people lived in cities; this jumped to around 40% in 1900.
When it comes down to it, this industrial revolution brought about many of the changes and technological developments that we still utilize today. It is not an exaggeration that the late 19th century was the beginning of the modern era of humanity.
The Third: Digital Technology
Finally, the third industrial revolution brought about much in the way of digital technologies. You are almost certainly reading this on a digital device, like a phone or computer monitor.
Beginning in the mid-20th century, rapid semi-conductor developments and innovations were crucial in bringing out various computing devices.
While most people use relatively small devices today, computers started as large room-sized mainframes. Eventually, the invention of the personal computer allowed for consumer computer usage. The gradual development of more compact semi-conductors has led to more and more devices becoming lightweight or portable.
In the last few decades, people have more rapidly started adopting and utilizing digital technologies, like the internet and cellular phones. These technologies and more are at the cornerstone of modern industries today. Various digital devices and technologies are part of almost every business, from small businesses to massive corporations.
The digital revolution has brought about rapid changes, more so than any other period in history thus far...and it is about to get more complicated soon.
What Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
For better or worse, we are currently living in the period of the fourth industrial revolution.
To recap what was said in the opening, the fourth industrial revolution refers to using digital technologies to allow for a more connected world with quick access to information on a massive scale.
The fourth industrial revolution involves technologies like cloud computing, social media, mobile devices, internet-powered devices (known as the Internet of things, or IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI). These changes are at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution, increasing computing power and data.
In The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab describes further describes the fourth industrial revolution. “It began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It is characterized by a much more ubiquitous mobile Internet, smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.”
To state that more briefly: a more intelligent, more connected world. According to Schwab, three key factors differentiate between the third and fourth industrial revolutions. These factors are as follows:
Velocity. Velocity refers to the speed and processing power at which information and devices transmit data.
Breadth and depth. Breadth and depth refer to the much broader scope and ability to transmit information than in the past.
Systems impact. Systems impact refers to how effectively and safely information can be transmitted.
Beyond just these factors, the rapidly decreasing cost of processing power and devices for producers and consumers have also been key factors driving modern developments.
Regarding the developments driving technological changes, they are essentially categorized into two groups: physical and digital technologies. Many of these technologies are extremely well known, while others are a bit more obscure.
Technologies Changing the Physical World
Several technologies are (or will be soon) positively impacting the development of society. The following are a good portion of some of them.
No matter how you slice it, the usage of biotechnology will likely remain a controversial topic due to the ethical questions it brings about.
However, looking beyond the moral, ethical, and religious debates these modifications may bring about, it is clear that there are many objective benefits that biotechnology can bring about. Here are a few that are commonly brought up and discussed:
Editing or eliminating genetic information to eliminate diseases
Preventing or curing disabilities.
Growing replacement organs.
Regaining eyesight for blind people.
Restoring hearing for the deaf/hard of hearing.
Again, the debate of what should or should not be permitted will inevitably rage on for years. While I have my thoughts on what I feel should and should not be done (no, I am certainly not going to open that can of worms here!), being aware of what is possible is vital for understanding and developing a position.
As someone who owns a consumer-grade 3D printer, I can tell you that this is a great technology. Today, 3D printers predominantly use resin and filament for the material used to print. However, future developments may help eventually allow for the usage of other materials, like stainless steel.
While 3D printers get used often to make fun, goofy things, they also get used for more practical purposes. For instance, consider the usage of industrial 3D printers to make transplantable organs in a process known as bioprinting. Naturally, this technology is being used in specific medical fields today.
3D printing is also used for prototyping products. CAD engineers can 3D print models to display what a larger product may look like on a much smaller scale. For instance, a tank or an airplane design may be printed and presented to executives and investors.
While it is still in its infancy, there is much to look forward to in developing 3D printing.
No, the future of robotics will almost certainly not involve giant robot wars or humanoid robots. More realistically, the near future of robotics will be more focused on developing industries and the medical field.
The field of robotics is, and will continue to be, utilized in ways like these:
Assisting in lifting heavy packages in warehouses and vehicles.
Helping with medical procedures, such as surgeries that require precise movement.
Used by farmers to harvest crops.
Used as consumer goods.
Internet of things (IoT)
While internet-enabled devices have the potential to lead to an invasion of privacy, there are many benefits that IoT devices can provide to the average consumer.
This topic could go down a bit of a rabbit hole; to keep things simple, here are some well-known examples of IoT devices:
When researching this topic, this section surprised me the most. I was unaware of how certain diverse materials could be produced. Enter materials like graphene. An artificial material, graphene is:
over 200 times more durable than steel
over 1 million times thinner than a human hair
an efficient conductor of heat and electricity
There are many uses for graphene, such as in solar cells and transistors. The creation and development of materials like graphene are likely to bring about revolutionary changes in the medical, engineering, and other professional fields.
Energy capture, storage, and transmission
Often discussed in the media, new energy sources frequently get brought up to reduce our carbon emissions on the environment.
Developing new forms of clean, renewable energy will be critical in decreasing our dependencies on fossil fuels, reducing pollution, and providing more efficient means to power devices.
Many developments are on the horizon, so it is hard to say which new energy forms will develop. What can be said for sure is that these developments will undoubtedly improve the standard of living for all forms of life.
Technologies Changing the Digital World
Beyond the physical realm of reality lies a "world" that is unseen: digital technologies. Here are some unique forms of technology shaping our world today.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
When many people think of AI, they often think of something like an evil computer or machine that has been compromised and wants to enslave humanity. While it makes for great science fiction, it is naive and far from the truth.
Here are a few practical examples of AI in action, many of which you likely already use:
The autocomplete feature on your phone
Product recommendations that generated from websites, such as Facebook or Amazon.
Facial recognition in photos.
A song's title and the author are determined by listening to a short audio section.
Through these practical uses of AI, we can streamline our productivity and enhance our standard of living. The development of AI is still in its infancy, so it will be interesting to see how everything unfolds.
More broadly, though, blockchain is a way to record and share data. Specifically, it is a way to make data visible to everyone without being changed without everyone able to know who modified it.
The future of blockchain development is pretty broad, with the potential of it being unclear. Certain blockchain projects and concepts, such as Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), have widely been critically panned by the general public. However, the development of blockchain technology is still being researched and developed, so new applications for real-world uses are still being invented and discovered.
There is no natural way to describe quantum computing adequately without getting extremely technical. Put simply, quantum computers could potentially be millions of times faster than current computer systems on the market.
Not satisfied with that description? Here is a more technical explanation. Today, computers store information in the forms of 1s and 0s (on and off, respectively). Quantum computers use what is known as quantum bits, or qubits, to encode information as 0s, 1s, or both at the same time. The both here is the keyword, as being able to represent these values simultaneously allows for drastically faster computational calculations.
So yeah, a very neat possibility in rapidly increasing the development of new technologies.
Virtual and augmented reality
You are almost certainly familiar with both of these, so I will be brief here. Virtual reality (VR) primarily uses a headset and controllers to interact with a digital interface.
As of this writing, the Oculus Quest 2 is the most consumer-friendly VR option on the market and one that I highly recommend as an excellent entry-level device.
Augmented reality (VR) is a bit less developed. In short, AR refers to projecting information into the real world via a device (hence augmented). This may include using glasses or another wearable device to project data via a projection only the device user can view.
There are currently no consumer AR devices on the market that I can strongly recommend. However, Microsoft's HoloLens shows excellent promise as an industry-grade AR device and something to keep an eye on.
For me personally, AR is the technology I'm more interested in seeing developed, as I feel it has more practical applications (such as directions, video chats, browsing the internet, etc.).
What Lies Ahead in the Future
The future shows great promise but also brings about the fear of uncertainty and resistance.
A common thing I frequently hear is how robots will replace humans in the future. While it is true that intelligent machines can far surpass humans in terms of computing and analyzing information, humans are still the ones that are defining and inputting data into such machines.
In other words: technology should be seen as a means to empower humanity and liberate us from the shackles of our biological tendencies and natural limitations.
As far as the distant future (or a fifth industrial revolution, if you will) goes, no one person can predict what will happen with complete certainty. If I had to venture a guess, however, I would anticipate the development and usage of neurological technologies to increase productivity and communications will be something that will occur either late in my lifetime or shortly after that.
There is so much good that humanity is capable of doing for ourselves and our immediate surroundings. However, a key question remains: what are we able and willing to do to transcend beyond the natural human capability our ancestors once thought was possible?
Brad Keywell, Co-founder and CEO. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution Is about Empowering People, Not the Rise of the Machines.” World Economic Forum, 2017, www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-is-about-people-not-just-machines/#www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-is-about-people-not-just-machines/.
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Industrial Revolution.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/event/Industrial-Revolution.
Nicholas Davis, Professor of Practice. “What Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” World Economic Forum, www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/what-is-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/.
Salesforce. “Learn about the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Salesforce Trailhead, trailhead.salesforce.com/en/content/learn/trails/4th-industrial-revolution.