You might have heard mention of the fourth industrial revolution and wondered what it meant. After all, history books tend to discuss the Industrial Revolution as a standalone event in Title Case, rather than one in a series of related progressions. Yet the encyclopaedias aren’t entirely accurate in that regard, although the fourth industrial revolution might be more accurately described as the Second Technological Revolution…
The first (and some say only) industrial revolution occurred when steam power was developed in the 18th century. By mechanising factories, a manufacturing industry developed in towns and cities across the country, leading to technological advances and rural depopulation. Its lesser-known sequel occurred through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as electricity and telephony revolutionised everything from standardised production to communications. In the 1970s, a convergence of computing and electronics heralded the third industrial revolution – the digital age. This ranged from pocket calculators and personal computers to robotics and the internet.
We are now standing on the cusp of a data-driven fourth revolution. Two complementary technologies will underpin this new information age: 5G communications and the Internet of Things (IoT). The former should finally achieve always-on connectivity anywhere we go, abolishing 4G’s clumsy cell-tower switching and the need to move between WiFi and cellular communications indoors and outdoors respectively. Meanwhile, 75 billion IoT devices are expected to be online by 2025, all communicating with each other and distributing information on a scale which is currently unimaginable.
Go fourth and multiply
The astonishing growth of IoT technology won’t just involve virtual assistants and smart bathroom scales. It’ll extend into every aspect of society, such as autonomous vehicles, self-repairing robots, blockchain processing, and supply chain efficiencies. And everything will revolve around data – those endless strings of zeros and ones which already govern our phones and computers, streaming services and software packages. Data will be the new steam powering our factories, the new electricity supporting domestic innovations and the new microprocessors underpinning consumer electronics. However, astronomical amounts of processing power are going to be needed, possibly involving quantum computing.
Convergence is a key trend expected from the fourth industrial revolution. This is already evident in areas like retail, where chatbots answer queries and communications platforms have evolved into marketing and PR channels. Augmented reality is regarded as a key growth area with the ability to provide far more information than existing literature or signage. It will enable us to interact with products, instead of passively observing them. AI could slash financial and insurance fraud, combining GPS monitoring and behaviour modelling to predict and/or understand consumer behaviour. Similar transformations are expected across healthcare, agriculture, transport, and manufacturing.
The future is now
These technologies might sound like the daydreams of a science fiction author, but they’re already being tested in laboratories and local communities. Autonomous vehicles are cruising around racetracks and airfields, despite relying on flaky 4G and approximate GPS data. We can 3D-print our own goods, providing they’re made from a single block of resin. Hydroponics support home cultivation of foodstuffs, although we’ll need more energy to grow enough crops for daily consumption. And computers are much better at making certain decisions than humans, despite lacking self-awareness or empathy.
All these challenges are in the process of being addressed, and each solution has a part to play in the fourth industrial revolution. The world could be a very different place in just a few years’ time, making this one of the most exciting times in human history. Today’s breakneck pace of technological evolution will deserve generous coverage in future journals and history books.