Science & Technology

Fourth industrial revolution: World Economic Forum advocates it; others fear corporate takeover; who is right

Technology can never exist in isolation; it has to exist within social realities, say critics of 4IR

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Tuesday 17 January 2023

The urgency around embracing 4IR technologies is visible even in India. Here, Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal meets Klaus Schwab at Davos 2023. Photo: @PiyushGoyal / Twitter

The urgency around embracing 4IR technologies is visible even in India. Here, Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal meets Klaus Schwab at Davos 2023. Photo: @PiyushGoyal / Twitter

On May 26, 2022, US researchers unveiled a pacemaker that dissolves in the human body after completing its job.

The four wireless sensors of the pacemaker monitor vitals such as temperature, oxygen levels and the heart’s electrical activity.

The device then analyses the vitals and decides when to pace the heart and at what rate. Doctors can wirelessly access the information on a tablet or smartphone.

The pacemaker is a near-perfect example of the ongoing fourth industrial revolution (4IR), which, simply put, is the use of different technologies to blur the boundaries between the digital, physical and biological worlds.

Another example of this blurring of worlds is the reproductive ability of the first living robot, called xenobots, demonstrated in October 2021 by a team of US scientists.

Xenobots, which are less than a millimetre long, were created in 2020 from the stem cells of the African clawed frog and can be programmed using artificial intelligence.

When the researchers put the xenobots into a petri dish, they were able to gather hundreds of tiny stem cells inside their mouths and create new xenobots a few days later.

Once perfected, xenobots could be useful for tasks like cleaning up microplastics and regrowing or replacing dead cells and tissues inside human bodies.

There are similar innovations taking place in the fields of agriculture, manufacturing, mobility (autonomous vehicles), retail stores and almost the entire services industry.

Such inventions, which often seem like science fiction becoming real, are what make the ongoing 4IR different from the earlier three industrial revolutions.

The first industrial revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production (1800s). The second used electric power to create mass production (early 1900s). The third used electronics and information technology to automate production (late 1900s). The 4IR, which is building on the third revolution, has data at its core.

David Hardt, professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, says that the ability to capture, store, disseminate and model data is fuelling the current revolution and that most of the technologies associated with 4IR revolve around the application of data.

According to management firm Boston Consulting, 4IR is a collection of nine technologies: cloud computing, big data, augmented reality, system integration, autonomous robots, cybersecurity, simulation, additive manufacturing, and the internet of things (IoT).

The term 4IR was coined by Klaus Schwab, executive chairperson of the World Economic Forum (WEF), in 2016 when he described it as an industrial revolution that “does not change what we are doing, but changes us”.

Ever since, the concept has divided the world over its utility and its impact on our future. On the one hand, a group of technologists, who call themselves futurists, claim that artificial intelligence and other associated technologies will enhance human beings in the future.

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering and self-proclaimed futurist, believes that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence by 2029 and that humans will merge their intelligence with artificial intelligence by 2045, increasing it a billion fold. He calls this a singularity — a time when the digital, physical and biological will become one.

On the other hand, many social theorists and economists believe that humanity may be moving towards a dystopian future, where corporations and the rich will use technology to deny work to many, and it would lead to social strife, conflicts and greater inequality.

Ian Moll at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa calls 4IR an ideology emanating from the need for global corporations to repair the economic consequences arising from the third industrial revolution.


India and most countries are investing in 4IR technologies

While the debate is on, countries are deliberately investing in 4IR technologies. Germany is giving incentives to companies that are embracing 4IR technologies in production.

Kenya is using blockchain to verify property records and transactions. Even the UN has adopted the same policy under its Industrial Development Organization.

Consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the uptake will increase significantly by 2030, when the technologies will be mature enough to be brought out of science laboratories and put to practical use. The urgency around embracing 4IR technologies is visible even in India.

In November 2020, the Modern Coach Factory (MCF) at Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh, rolled out smart railway coaches that are fitted with a battery of sensors to provide a comfortable experience to passengers.

The sensors monitor odour levels in toilets, check if the doors are safely closed, avoid fire outbreaks and stop unauthorised travel using CCTV cameras with face recognition capabilities, among other technologies.

In May 2020, the Union Ministry of Heavy Industries launched the Smart Advanced Manufacturing and Rapid Transformation Hub (SAMARTH) scheme, which brings together manufacturers, vendors, and customers to make them aware of 4IR technologies.

In this year’s budget speech, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a slew of new 4IR-driven projects, including Drone Shakti, to encourage start-ups that will facilitate the use of drone services.

She spoke about how drones can be utilised in land surveying, spraying insecticides and digitisation of land records. She said that in the field of education, the DESH Stack ecosystem would be announced for skilling, re-skilling, and upskilling through online training. The proposed ecosystem will use blockchain technology to make the process of skill acquisition transparent and efficient.

India even has a 4IR centre in Mumbai run by WEF, which is closely working with several state governments. The Centre has recently come up with the Fourth Industrial Revolution for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) Cancer Care model in which 4IR technologies would be used to provide better healthcare for cancer patients.

India is also exploring digital twin technology for creating models. A digital twin means creating a highly complex virtual model that is the exact counterpart (or twin) of a physical thing, which can be anything from a car, building or even a person.

On February 19, the Union minister of state for science and technology, Jitendra Singh, launched the pan-India 3D maps programme by Genesys International for the 100 smart cities.

The company plans to map an entire city in intricate detail so that many 4IR revolution technology-based projects, such as driverless cars, will become easier to implement. It is the first step towards completely connected living as envisioned under 4IR.


How to make 4IR inclusive and beneficial to all

While India is embracing 4IR technologies, it, like most other countries, is also experiencing pushback from the people. The immediate fear is that of job loss, particularly in the informal sector. There are also concerns that as India progresses on the journey of 4IR, machines and technology will take over many white-collar jobs across sectors as well.

In July 2020, BML Munjal University in Kapriwas, Haryana, estimated that in the next three to five years, 20 per cent of legal work in India would be taken up by artificial intelligence software.

In India, temporary and contractual jobs are already increasing at a higher rate than full-time jobs. So, the advent of 4IR technologies would disrupt the entire job market, says Rajdeep Singha, assistant professor at the Centre for Labour Studies and Social Protection at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati.

The employees of the Indian Railways have already started protesting against the introduction of vending machines for ticket dispensation at stations and the general automation of maintenance of train tracks.

With 1.4 million jobs, the Indian Railways is the largest employer in India and the eighth largest in the world, and most of those jobs are now at risk. Experts warn that as the technologies mature, the demand for the jobs that are currently in hot demand to implement 4IR, such as artificial intelligence engineers, data scientists and robot maintenance workers, will also shrink.

The supporters of 4IR say job losses will be temporary as new opportunities that are currently unknown will emerge.

They cite the example of the third industrial revolution, which triggered widespread job losses in manufacturing. Over time, the services sector evolved and created new job opportunities for many.

They say the issue is one of skills and not jobs.

“There is great evidence from Australian studies recently that automation normally takes away the work you do not want to do and Australian workers in the last 15 years have gained more than two hours a week, a substantial amount of time in interpersonal work, in creative work, in information synthesis work, which is all highly correlated with increasing job satisfaction,” says Nicholas Davis, a member of the Executive Committee at WEF in Geneva, Switzerland.

Taking this logic forward, 4IR supporters say that as people will have more time to indulge in leisure, the arts will take over from the sciences and other disciplines in providing humans with work.

Besides joblessness, there are several other critical concerns surrounding safety, ethics and the short- and long-term socio-economic impact that remain unanswered. For instance, there were massive disruptions in flights inside the US in January 2022.

This happened because of fears of interference between the C band of the 5G wireless technology and the altimeters of aircraft used for navigation, especially during landing at airports.

Various airlines flagged their safety concerns to the federal authorities in the US at the last moment, creating panic. 5G technology (and later 6G) is one of the engines that will propel the 4IR forward. The health and environmental concerns around 5G have also not been sufficiently addressed.

There are a lot more technologies that have already been developed or are in the process of being developed with a lot greater concerns and issues, especially in developing and underdeveloped countries.

The adoption of 4IR technologies is also going to be skewed as developing and least developed countries lack the data framework and infrastructure. “African countries will falter in their quest for an artificial intelligence-led 4IR economic boost if they neglect investments in foundational second and third industrial revolution technologies such as efficient transport systems, power grids, and reliable broadband connections for a critical mass of the population,” writes Tunde Okunoye of the Berkman Klein Centre at Harvard University, US.

There is also evidence that problems in the real world are creeping into virtual reality. For instance, one of the beta testers of Facebook’s Metaverse project, where individuals can live a parallel digital life, complained in November 2021 that she had been sexually harassed on the platform.

The platform does have a safety feature built into it, but she was unable to use it. The company’s officials claimed that they would have to make the safety feature easily accessible.

There is a growing concern that the existing fallacies in humans might only get more accentuated after 4IR. There are several studies that show how facial recognition technologies have a higher chance of misidentifying African and Asian people compared to their Western counterparts. This is due to the biases in the data being used by these technologies.


4IR success rests on policies and social acceptance

“The general discourse around the 4IR romanticises the idea of technology solving all the problems faced by modern day capitalism, and this is being done instead of solving the problems through socio-economic means,” says Aayush Rathi, senior researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society in Delhi.

This idea is fundamentally flawed as technology can never exist in isolation; it has to exist within social realities, Rathi says. This explains why while automation in garment factories in Bangladesh is causing widespread job losses, particularly among women, it has improved the working condition of workers in Germany.

The European country has done considerable work on providing stronger protection for its workers against the onslaught of automation technologies, especially in terms of decision-making.

The country, which has 221,500 industrial robots in the manufacturing sector, has found a way around workers’ resistance. Instead of completely replacing the workers with robots, they have introduced collaborative robots, or co-bots, which aid people in their work.

“The future depends on whether we take into account all kinds of diversity — economic, geographical, gender and age. Technologies need to be more inclusive and acceptable to all,” says Purushottam Kaushik, head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, WEF, India. They also need to make political, social and not just economic sense.

The current debate, unfortunately, talks about individual problems that can arise out of the 4IR. What is needed instead is a paradigm shift where processes are developed to plug the overall challenges with 4IR.

This is going to be critical as people are already predicting a fifth, sixth and even seventh industrial revolution in the days to come.

A research paper published in the Journal of Innovation and Knowledge in January 2022 talks about a fifth industrial revolution that would be a collaboration between humans and artificial intelligence technologies.

John Walker, founder of Autodesk, talks about the engineering of materials at the molecular level as the sixth industrial revolution and self replicating machines as the seventh industrial revolution.

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This story was first published in the 1-15 September, 2022 print edition of Down To Earth

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