Fourth Industrial Revolution and a different future for humanity
It is impossible to avoid a certain degree of myopia while writing any narrative of humanity; after all, we are living that narrative. The hindsight bias makes some of the most unexpected cultural shifts inescapable and random noise can give birth to smooth sweeping trends over a long duration.
We have to step back from the subject under inquiry to develop a view of the history unencumbered by the present noise. We can not judge the value of action until we have observed its effects, and the biographies of living can never contemplate the influence of their legacies.
For this reason, among so many others, we have to be careful of the in-progress narratives occurring over a long time span. And one such narrative taking shape right now is called The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Industrial Revolutions family tree
The story says that humanity has industrialized human production through three major fundamental shifts and is currently entering the fourth one. These turning points are:
- The first industrial revolution was driven by the invention of the steam engine in 18th century Europe. Accompanied by a rise in the textile and iron industries, workers witnessed a dramatic trend towards urbanization.
- The second industrial revolution was driven by the rise of steel, oil, and electricity in the late 19th century and resulted in innovation such as the telephone, the light bulb, and the internal combustion engine.
- The third industrial revolution was driven by the rise of digital technologies, including the personal computer and the internet at the end of the 20th century.
- The fourth industrial revolution is driven by the most recent “digital revolution,” and is characterized by emerging technologies, including robotics, Artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, connected sensors, 3D printing, and autonomous vehicles. This has the potential to result in a truly global society, provided we can combine these breakthroughs with the necessary communications infrastructure.
All of it seems tied up in a 300-year-old string, right? This narrative fits our historical facts but also runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees. It focuses on the subtleties of these new and exciting technologies — precisely because they are ‘new and exciting’ — but misses out on the meaning of bigger trends behind these shifts.
If we organize the eras of human production based on the ‘who’ of the production instead of the ‘what’ of the technology, we might give birth to a different narrative which is similar but distinct to the one above. This alternate perspective tells the story of the dehumanization of production and can help us understand and react to the trends of today. A less human-centered view can bring different truths into sharper focus and allow us to explore more possible futures. So let us look at the narrative of human consumption rather than human production.
An alternative narrative of the industrial revolutions
In this narrative, the first act is the period of natural production, lasting from the dawn of humanity (around 3,00,000 years ago) until around 10,000 years in the past. Throughout this era, humans depended on the generosity of nature and their lives were shaped by the natural world.
The second act is the period of sustainable food production, driven by the invention of agriculture (sometime around 9,000 BC and extending to the middle of the 18th century.) In this era, humans and their domesticated animal companions used their physical strength and intellectual skills to create the infrastructure and production necessary to nourish larger, less transient human settlements. Some examples of this era include seasonal farming, irrigation systems, and food-storage facilities.
The third act is the period of industrialized labor, driven by the energy-saving inventions of the 18th century such as the steam engine and the water-powered spinning frame for textile mills. This exciting new era represented the dehumanization of physical strength as developed machines began to out-compete humans and animals in every area where raw strength and physical prowess were the critical components for production. This resulted in humans competing with machines on price or switching to new and more intellectual forms of labor to stay relevant in the production chain of the goods and services consumed by society.
The fourth and the on-going act is the period of industrialized intelligence, driven by the mental-energy saving inventions of the late 20th century and continuing today. Much as the second act dehumanized biological strength with machines, the replacement of biological intelligence with machines represents the dehumanization of intellectual labor. Reports have shown that if the current techniques are projected a few years forwards, machines will be able to out-compete humans in every area where intelligence is one of the key components of production.
Since many tasks are a combination of both physical and mental labor, the development of this intelligence revolution will even accelerate the impact of industrialized labor. This means that the disruption caused to the existing patterns of the society by the arrival of automated intelligence will be more significant compared to anything in the past. Automated intelligence combined with automated physical labor is inevitably more cost-effective than human production and might leave no segment of production untouched for humans to monopolize.
Creating a legacy
To sum it up, the era of industrialized intelligence was heeded to by the era of industrialized labor, which in turn was given way by the era of sustainable production, which came after the era of natural production.
The transitions between these eras were driven by first inventing production, then automating physical labor, and then automating brains. The first shift created employment, the second shift transitioned employment to higher-level jobs, and today the third shift is already beginning to impact society and spark debates all over.
Societal roles shift to reflect advancement every time an era progresses. If we look at the labor force in England during the 1750s, over one-third of people were involved in agriculture jobs; compare this to 2012, when only about 1% were occupied in agriculture. England is returning record-breaking yields despite fewer people working in agriculture only because we have been able to make our physical labor more efficient. This has allowed a larger percentile of our workforce to shift to mentally intensive work such as engineering, healthcare, and sciences.
But what happens in a time where Artificial Intelligence makes automated mental labor more efficient? Where do we shift our focus and efforts to once our brains are no longer as competitive with machines? This major shift in how humanity produces goods and services might require an equally significant shift in our social fabric. We may need to radically rethink what it means to be human and our assumptions about how to live a meaningful life. Is spending our lives to “making a living” really the ultimate goal of our existence?
It might benefit us to change our narrative around the fourth industrial revolution and zoom out to observe the larger trends. Humanity makes sense of the world and itself by telling stories about how the world has come to be and by examining it through different stories, we might be able to prepare for a very different future.
Perhaps we are not in the fourth industrial revolution to simply progress humanity. Perhaps we are all in the final stages of a grand process to let machines take care of every single task necessary to sustain a stable society. Perhaps jobs are not the source of human dignity and escape from the burden of labor is not unemployment, but freedom. Perhaps models like Universal Basic Income will arise to replace labor income. Perhaps there is not going to be another industrial revolution and we are not moving into a new era of human industrialization — perhaps we are on the cusp of the dehumanization of industrialization.
Perhaps it is time for humanity to start narrating a very different story to help itself prepare for a very different future.
Credit: Anip Sharma