Credit: Flyout/Wikipedia

Davos 2016: Is there really a 'fourth industrial revolution'?

We're on the cusp of the robot era, according to the glitterati at the World Economic Forum.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 22 Feb 2016

Half of jobs taken by intelligent robots. Digital technology wired into our very bodies. Businesses facing evolve-or-die disruption on a more or less daily basis. These are just some of the things we can look forward to from the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum summit at Davos.

The idea, as described by WEF founder Klaus Schwab, is that ‘cyber-physical systems’ will rank alongside steam power (the first industrial revolution), electricity (the second) and IT (the third) as technologies that will truly transform human life as we know it. Except this one will be even more profound than the others and will take place at an ‘exponential’ rate as the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological spheres blur.

The upside of all that is that we’ll be even more plugged in to what the digital world has to offer, while in the physical space productivity will skyrocket, causing a great abundance of, well, everything. The downside, though, appears to be that we’ll either be superseded by a race of terrifying, intelligent machines (a la the Terminator or the Matrix) or integrated into a cyborg collective with some sort of social-media hive mind (like the Borg in Star Trek, but with ‘like’ buttons).  

Time to prepare for the apocalypse? Hold your horses (or flying cars). It’s true that the likes of quantum computing, genuine AI, synthetic biology and nanotechnology could cause enormous changes, for good or ill. But those technologies don’t actually exist yet, at least not in any meaningful way.

Indeed, a lot of the technologies included as part of the fourth industrial revolution that do exist don’t actually seem all that revolutionary. The ability to produce plastic toys of any size or shape (so long as it’s smaller than the 3-D printing machine) very slowly and in tiny quantities has for some reason yet to transform manufacturing as we know it, while being able to check what’s in your fridge while you’re at work (behold the Internet of Things) has nothing on the spinning jenny.

Of course technology is causing profound and rapid changes, but it’s too easy to say that it’s exponential and more profound just because it’s now. Electric cars are impressive, yes, but surely giving a car to someone who previously had to go everywhere on foot is more impactful than upgrading their Model T to a Tesla.

What certainly will have a great impact in the near future is automation. We know this because robots and algorithms have already been changing the workplace for decades now, and the process is continuing at some pace. The consensus does seem to be that up to half of the jobs we have now will become obsolete, possibly as soon as the middle of this century.

While ushering in the aforementioned new era of abundance, this will also steadily tip the balance away from labour and towards capital, which as Thomas Picketty will tell you has real implications for inequality. The only solution proposed so far appears to be bit of a non-starter - soak the rich to pay for a form of national wage, leading to a meaningless life of leisure, with every whim catered for by a legion of cute yet obedient robots, of the sort found in Disney's Wall-e. Not too bad, as dystopian futures go. 


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