The word “revolution” denotes abrupt and radical change. Revolutions have occurred throughout history when new technologies and novel ways of perceiving the world trigger a profound change in economic systems and social structures. Given that history is used as a frame of reference, the abruptness of these changes may take years to unfold.
The first profound shift in our way of living—the transition from foraging to farming—happened around 10,000 years ago and was made possible by the domestication of animals. The agrarian revolution combined the efforts of animals with those of humans for the purpose of production, transportation and communication. Little by little, food production improved, spurring population growth and enabling larger human settlements. This eventually led to urbanization and the rise of cities.
The agrarian revolution was followed by a series of industrial revolutions that began in the second half of the 18th century. These marked the transition from muscle power to mechanical power, evolving to where today, with the fourth industrial revolution, enhanced cognitive power is augmenting human production.
The first industrial revolution spanned from about 1760 to around 1840. Triggered by the construction of railroads and the invention of the steam engine, it ushered in mechanical production. The second industrial revolution, which started in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, made mass production possible, fostered by the advent of electricity and the assembly line. The third industrial revolution began in the 1960s. It is usually called the computer or digital revolution because it was catalyzed by the development of semiconductors, mainframe computing (1960s), personal computing (1970s and ’80s) and the internet (1990s).
Mindful of the various definitions and academic arguments used to describe the first three industrial revolutions, I believe that today we are at the beginning of a 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 and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Digital technologies that have computer hardware, software and networks at their core are not new, but in a break with the third industrial revolution, they are becoming more sophisticated and integrated and are, as a result, transforming societies and the global economy. This is the reason why Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have famously referred to this period as “the second machine age,”2 the title of their 2014 book, stating that the world is at an inflection point where the effect of these digital technologies will manifest with “full force” through automation and and the making of “unprecedented things.”
In Germany, there are discussions about “Industry 4.0,” a term coined at the Hannover Fair in 2011 to describe how this will revolutionize the organization of global value chains. By enabling “smart factories,” the fourth industrial revolution creates a world in which virtual and physical systems of manufacturing globally cooperate with each other in a flexible way. This enables the absolute customization of products and the creation of new operating models.
The fourth industrial revolution, however, is not only about smart and connected machines and systems. Its scope is much wider. Occurring simultaneously are waves of further breakthroughs in areas ranging from gene sequencing to nanotechnology, from renewables to quantum computing. It is the fusion of these technologies and their interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains that make the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally different from previous revolutions.
In this revolution, emerging technologies and broad-based innovation are diffusing much faster and more widely than in previous ones, which continue to unfold in some parts of the world. This second industrial revolution has yet to be fully experienced by 17% of world, as nearly 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity. This is also true for the third industrial revolution, with more than half of the world’s population, 4 billion people, most of whom live in the developing world, lacking internet access. The spindle (the hallmark of the first industrial revolution) took almost 120 years to spread outside of Europe. By contrast, the internet permeated across the globe in less than a decade.
Still valid today is the lesson from the first industrial revolution—that the extent to which society embraces technological innovation is a major determinant of progress. The government and public institutions, as well as the private sector, need to do their part, but it is also essential that citizens see the long-term benefits.
I am convinced that the fourth industrial revolution will be every bit as powerful, impactful and historically important as the previous three. However, I have two primary concerns about factors that may limit the potential of the fourth industrial revolution to be effectively and cohesively realized.
First, I feel that the required levels of leadership and understanding of the changes under way, across all sectors, are low when contrasted with the need to rethink our economic, social and political systems to respond to the fourth industrial revolution. As a result, both at the national and global levels, the requisite institutional framework to govern the diffusion of innovation and mitigate the disruption is inadequate at best and, at worst, absent altogether.
Second, the world lacks a consistent, positive and common narrative that outlines the opportunities and challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, a narrative that is essential if we are to empower a diverse set of individuals and communities and avoid a popular backlash against the fundamental changes under way.