The Fourth Industrial Revolution - where is technology taking us?
Blog post by Špela Kolarič
As summarised by the World Economic Forum, the first industrial revolution was about mechanising production using water and steam power; the second gave rise to mass production using electric power; and the third was characterised by automated production enabled by electronics and information technology. The fourth industrial revolution is happening now, building on the third it fuses digital, biological and physical spheres.
Technological development, as reflected in policies, was foreseen to lead to a smart, green future, bringing sustainable growth, and fostering values of democracy, freedom and equality. Nevertheless, rapidly developing information communication technology (ICT) is leading to pervasive changes in our everyday life, on a global scale.
Indeed the emergence of advanced ICT technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), Big data technology, 3D/4D printing and general digitalisation of society brings great opportunities such as potentially decreased environmental pressures due to altered production and consumption patterns, informed and empowered individuals and communities, and development of medicine. However, uptake of these technologies will without a doubt be disruptive for humanity and also poses great threats like unemployment and privacy and security breaches, as people are replaced by machines, and cyber-attacks are increasing.
The ICT technology is running on highly energy intensive infrastructure (e.g. data centres) and ubiquitous devices (e.g. computers, smartphones) with high-replacements rates, creating increasingly more e-waste leading to environmental, health and social implications (e.g. informal recycling). Instead of encouraging democracy and respecting individuals’ discretion, it is becoming obvious that ‘tech’ can be quite the opposite, a ‘totalitarian’ force enabling unprecedented surveillance and control over individuals and organisations. Privacy issues were recognised by governments and led to the EU General Data Protection Regulation.
Events like the hack attack that happened two years ago on a company making electronic toys, which led to misplacing videos and pictures of children using devices connected to insecure IoT, do not make many people feel particularly comfortable. Neither do smart mirrors, nor the thought of being monitored and connected to everything everywhere (home, work, gym, restaurant etc.) at all time. However, it is perhaps the convergence of artificial intelligence (AI) with all these technologies, and in particularly synthetic biology, that many find most disconcerting.
As reflected by literature, with developments in genome engineering human enhancement is becoming more and more possible. This brings to mind a Sci-fi novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’. Is it possible that the ethical and moral challenges of an individual and society as described by Philip K. Dick 50 years ago could become our reality? Will we question what it means to be human? Will the question perhaps be answered on our behalf and institutionalised by some higher authority?
For sure, from a certain perspective the consequences of these promising technologies look pretty worrisome. However, the outcomes of the fourth industrial revolution are largely up to us. Policies and sectoral as well as international collaboration will play key roles in regulating new technologies and allowing us to benefit from them. Ultimately, though, we are all responsible for using the technology ethically, particularly making sure it harms neither the environment nor our values of democracy, freedom and equality.
Špela Kolarič, Senior Consultant, CEP, 17 October 2018
 Philip K. Dick (1968), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, SF Masterworks. London: Orion Books