Science has advanced to the point where researchers are now capable of deconstructing and producing new forms of physical and biological matter at an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale.
The impact of these fundamental scientific breakthroughs is so significant that they’ve been the primary topic of discussion at the World Economic Forum over the last three years. World Economic Forum founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab, wrote in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution:
We are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, what I consider to be the fourth industrial revolution is unlike anything humankind has experienced before.[i]
As can be seen in figure 1, the first three industrial revolutions drastically improved productivity, created new industries and made fundamental impacts on society.[ii]
The first revolution saw the transition from hand production to machines, and water and wind energy to coal-based steam power. It created the textile, metallurgy and chemical industries. During this time, the standard of living for the general population began to consistently improve.
Innovations in the steel-making process resulted in advanced machinery and large-scale manufacturing of machine tools. The enormous expansion of rail and telegraph allowed unprecedented movement of people and ideas, which accelerated the transition from agrarian economies to the industrial era. Rural populations decreased, and a large percentage of the population found employment as factory workers.
Also called the ‘Digital revolution’, this paradigm shift sees the transition from mechanical and analogue electronic technology to digital electronics, computers and the internet that continues to this day. Industrial employment slowed down and a new class of knowledge workers emerged.
Today, in the fourth industrial revolution, something unique and unprecedented is happening: the boundaries between physical, digital and biological worlds are blurring, seen in figure 2 below. Multiple emerging technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, synthetic biology and genetics are reaching their maturity.
Among the emerging technologies mentioned, AI will be one of the most impactful. Businesses will widely deploy AI-based solutions for cognitive computing and robotic process automation (RPA) to stay competitive. More importantly, researchers will augment their analytical capabilities with AI to achieve further breakthroughs in physical and biological sciences. Companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook are already introducing “research” business streams conducted by AI, using the big data they already have, to provide analysis and forecasts.
AI made significant breakthroughs in 2015 when computer vision was able to categorise images with a 4.9 percent error rate,[iii] better than the human error rate of 5.1 percent.[iv] In 2017, computer speech recognition, at 5.9 percent, came very close to matching the human level of 5.1 percent.[v] AI software is now learning at a task level every day with human supervision from all available data, and will eventually be capable of every task a human can perform. Tesla cars are already learning from thousands of human drivers and training their on-board auto-pilot system, to eventually perform much better than the driving capabilities of a single human driver.[vi]
With an expected increase in affordable number of computations per second, a USD1000 computer in 2030 will have the processing power of a human brain.[vii] Figure 3 shows the exponential growth of computing power towards human brain capabilities. At this point, the only way for humans to add value will be to become cyborgs with direct brain-computer interfaces (BCI). It will then theoretically be possible for thoughts and though processes in a biological brain to migrate to a computing system, and continue to run within the software.
Philosophically speaking, we are already cyborgs. We outsource many cognitive tasks to our smartphones without thinking of them as entities separate from us. We communicate via texting more than with the spoken word. Our kids “learn to swipe before they learn to wipe”.
The IoT is technically a network of physical devices, cars, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity - all of which enables these objects to connect and exchange data.[viii] Experts estimate there will be about 30 billion IoT objects by 2020.[ix] While small form-factor computers bring “smartness” to devices around us, what is even more astonishing is that these IoT devices will be the eyes and ears for AI to take care of things around us.
In his book The Singularity is Near,[x] Ray Kurzweil estimated that by 2045 we will reach what is known as “the singularity,” in which affordable artificial general intelligence - that is, AI that can successfully perform any intellectual task of a human being - will exceed the intelligence of the whole human race. There will be massive social consequences of reaching such a milestone. It is therefore imperative that leaders consider the impact on their businesses, their personal mindset, and the way their home life will operate in relation to their business life. After all, the question needs to be asked whether the Singularity will benefit society as a whole or simply increase inequality.
If we are only some thirty years away from the singularity, then the rate of change witnessed in the next five to ten years will be nothing short of astonishing. The impact of emerging technologies on all industries will become even more drastic than it already is and will continue to accelerate far beyond the pace we see today.
The digital space is not alone in experiencing a transformation of products and services. The physical world is also readying new technologies for “the prime time”. Robotics, nanomaterials and 3D printing are redefining the nature of physical products, complete manufacturing processes, and global supply chains.
While the levels of automation in manufacturing have continuously increased over the years, advanced robotics is giving automation another boost. Leveraging computer vision, new generations of robots can see what they do, learn quickly from humans, and self-adjust when completing tasks. Companies like Rethink Robotics[xi] and Universal Robots[xii] are actively installing such robots for their customers.
3D printing will lead to 100 percent automated manufacturing of parts and products. At the current cost point and materials availability, this technology is economical for product prototyping and individual parts printing in remote locations, but in ten years it will match the cost of industrial manufacturing even for small quantities of goods. Nike[xiii] and Adidas[xiv] have already deployed 3D-printing based on laser cutting techniques for smaller volumes of shoe production at regional sites.
Striking advances are also being made in the biological space.
Animal cloning is already an established business,[xv] so it is simply a matter of time before it is practically available for humans. Doctors are already 3D-printing 'living' human body parts.[xvi] Biologically aging organs can be replaced or repaired, extending life expectancy – and eventually making it possible to extend life indefinitely. This will have social and ethical implications as life expectancies increase, and an individual’s ability to perform tasks is extended (ie a 65-year-old performing tasks which ordinarily would be performed by a 40-year-old).
Meanwhile, advances in bionics will enable us to complement the human body with non-biological parts, further enhancing our physical abilities and blurring the lines between physical and biological matter. Eventually, we will be able to precisely recreate biological processes in digital form, analyse them, visualise them, and ultimately reproduce any biological entity from digital data. There will be an unprecedented impact across different industries.
Leaders and policy makers need to consider the social impacts of blending bio-medical and AI technologies with humans. However, this should also be pragmatically driven, so innovation continues to further advance humanity.
[i] Schwab, K., 2017.The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Penguin Books Ltd. pp 1.
[ii] Davis, N., 2016. What is the fourth industrial revolution? Viewed 9 October 2017. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/what-is-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/
[iii] Harris, D., 2015. Microsoft says its new computer vision system can outperform humans. Viewed 10 October 2017. Available at: https://gigaom.com/2015/02/13/microsoft-says-its-new-computer-vision-system-can-outperform-humans/
[iv] ImageNet, 2015. ImageNet Large Scale Visual Recognition Competition (ILSVRC). Viewed 10 October 2017. Available at: http://www.image-net.org/challenges/LSVRC/
[v] Tung, L., 2017. IBM vs Microsoft: 'Human parity' speech recognition record changes hands again. Viewed 12 October 2017. Available at: http://www.zdnet.com/article/ibm-vs-microsoft-human-parity-speech-recognition-record-changes-hands-again/
[vi] Muoio, D., 2017. Tesla's new Autopilot is getting a big update this weekend — here's everything you need to know. Viewed 15 October. Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/tesla-enhanced-autopilot-system-self-driving-features-2017-6//?r=AU&IR=T/#enhanced-autopilot-is-made-possible-thanks-to-a-suite-of-new-hardware-that-tesla-has-been-integrating-into-vehicles-since-october-2016-for-examplenew-tesla-cars-now-have-eight-cameras-that-provide-360-degree-visibility-and-250-meters-820-feet-of-range-instead-of-one-camera-1
[vii] Kurzweil, R., 2006. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Putnam Inc. pp 62.
[viii] International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 2018. Internet of Things Global Standards Initiative. Viewed 20 October 2017. Available at: https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-T/gsi/iot/Pages/default.aspx’
[ix] Nordrum, A., 2016. Popular Internet of Things Forecast of 50 Billion Devices by 2020 Is Outdated. Viewed 20 October 2017. Available at: https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/internet/popular-internet-of-things-forecast-of-50-billion-devices-by-2020-is-outdated
[x] Kurzweil, R., 2006. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin Putnam Inc. pp 136.
[xi] Kellner, T., 2016. Rethink Robotics is Freeing Robots from Their Cages. Viewed 23 October 2017. Available at: https://www.ge.com/reports/post/107898198705/rethink-robotics-is-freeing-next-gen-robots-from/
[xii] Guizzo, E., 2015. Universal Robots Wants to Conquer the Universe (of Robotic Arms). Viewed 23 October 2017. Available at: https://www.ge.com/reports/post/107898198705/rethink-robotics-is-freeing-next-gen-robots-from/
[xiii] Nike Inc., 2015. Nike's Manufacturing Revolution Accelerated by New Partnership with Flex. Viewed 23 October 2017. Available at: https://news.nike.com/news/nike-s-manufacturing-revolution-accelerated-by-new-partnership-with-flex
[xiv] Adidas, n.d., Adidas and the future of manufacturing. Viewed 23 October 2017. Available at: https://www.adidas-group.com/en/group/backgroundstories/specialty/adidas-future-manufacturing/
[xv] Popescu, A., 2017. Horse Clones Start Heading to the Races. Viewed 24 October 2017. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-07/horse-clones-start-heading-to-the-races
[xvi] Kang, H., Lee, S.J., Ko, I.K., Kengla, C., Yoo, J.J., Atala, A., 2017. A 3D bioprinting system to produce human-scale tissue constructs with structural integrity. Viewed 26 October 2017. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.3413