Will the fourth industrial revolution benefit the many or the few?

Getting the future right requires power as well as hope.

by Matthew Taylor
Image credit: Humanrobo/Wikipedia
Last Updated: 07 Dec 2016

Ryan Avent in The Wealth of Humans makes a telling point about the Luddites, the weavers who destroyed mill machinery when it threatened their livelihood in the early 19th century. Of course, they failed and their name has since become synonymous with futile resistance to technological progress, but perhaps, suggests Avent, they had a point. For almost a century later, life got worse for tradesmen as they were forced to work in hellish factories and live in urban hovels.

The Luddites were vanquished by a powerful ruling class unchecked by democracy, but in the face of today's impatient voters, imagine the fate of a politician promoting disruptive technological change on the basis that it might, just might, make things better for our great-grandchildren. The challenge is to ensure that citizens as a whole are the beneficiaries of radical changes that will affect everything from transport to food, not just the already privileged.

This is a central concern of The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab, the eminent founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Schwab describes the book as a primer, written for the WEF's global network of leaders and future leaders.

Essentially, it is a book of lists, lots of them, starting with the three things that make the next stage of technological change qualify as a 'revolution' - 'velocity', 'breadth and depth', and 'systems impact' - and ending with the 23 most likely technological shifts of the next decade according to a survey of 800 business executives. This final list ranges from the seemingly inevitable ('90% of the world population using smartphones') to the rather more speculative ('the first human with fully artificial memory implanted in the brain').

It's a fast-paced, fact-filled book which provides a useful guide to the implications of emerging technology. Schwab thinks it is vital that the public and their leaders know what is coming towards them.

I read the book in between undertaking various tasks involved in setting up the Review of Modern Employment that the prime minister has asked me to undertake. Schwab addresses technology's impact on work at a number of points. The following statement from the book is similar in sentiment to the Downing Street press release which announced my appointment:

'The challenge we face is to come up with new forms of social and employment contracts that suit the changing workforce and the evolving nature of work. We must limit the downside of the human cloud in terms of possible exploitation, while neither curtailing the growth of the labour market nor preventing people from working in the manner they choose.'

Such a sentiment may also have been in the back of the minds of the employment tribunal, which recently found no fewer than 13 reasons to question Uber's claim that its platform merely facilitates a contract between passengers and self-employed drivers. Facing this and many other ways in which we and our rulers may be called on to balance the claims of technological progress, corporate profitability and consumer convenience against those of social justice and human dignity, Schwab's book contains a five-word paragraph: 'It is up to us'.

One day, it is said, intelligent machines may claim their own rights, but for now technological progress should surely be in service of humanity. How do we ensure that it is? Here Schwab argues that the next industrial revolution requires that we nurture four types of intelligence: 'contextual (the mind), emotional (the heart), inspired (the soul) and physical (the body)'. In other words, technological development must be matched by a great leap forward in wisdom and empathy.

We can but hope. But the less optimistic of us might wonder why the three decades since the internet was created have shown so few signs of this 21st-century enlightenment. Rising inequality, growing surveillance, the polarised nature of social media politics, tech giants with unprecedented corporate power and a cavalier attitude to paying national taxes - it seems that mind, heart and soul are yet to be in harmony. These problems have been discussed over and again at forums organised by Schwab, yet there are few signs of effective solutions.

Getting the future right will be about power as well as hope. I enjoyed the book and will make use of some of its analysis, but I was disappointed that Schwab isn't willing to use his status to throw down a more concrete challenge to the great and good with whom he is so well connected. Between today's potential Luddites, on the one side, and those best placed to exploit technological disruption in their own interests, on the other, there is an enlightened path to be walked. We won't find it without facing some very hard choices.

Matthew Taylor is CEO of the Royal Society of Arts.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab, will be published by Portfolio Penguin (£14.99) on 5 January 2017.

Image credit: Humanrobo/Wikipedia