As the name suggests, Industrial Revolutions are revolutionary. They mark periods in history where rapid developments in industrial processes drastically improve labour productivity growth. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the First Industrial Revolution began. One of its major achievements was the development of steam power, which completely redefined manufacturing. Following that, the Second and Third Industrial Revolutions were also hugely revolutionary, producing the first affordable motor car and the internet.
We are currently in the throes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whose defining factor is the automation of industry. It is a period meant to greatly improve our use of technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. The big question, however, is has it failed to deliver? Or has it just not really happened yet?
Ten years ago, the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, summed up the stance on the Fourth Industrial Revolution: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Over twenty years before that, Back to the Future Part II predicted that in 2015, flying cars and robots would not only exist but be accessible to the general public. These predictions are still a dream: rather than revolutionary changes to our industries and our lives, we have seen more developments in smaller-scale technology. The Internet of Things continues to grow as more and more of our everyday items become linked to the internet: watches, fridges, televisions. Arguably, these technologies are more luxury than necessity, and despite having made some parts of our lives more convenient, they haven’t really revolutionised the way we do things.
The technologies that will define the Fourth Industrial Revolution are currently inaccessible to the majority of people and smaller businesses. During the pandemic, many large businesses with a strong online presence have thrived, particularly ones that already had some form of automation in place. Amazon’s sales increased by 51% in 2020, but they were already in a position to deal with it, both logistically and financially. The company started using warehouse robots in 2012, reducing the number of in-person staff they needed whilst increasing efficiency. In contrast, smaller businesses have suffered, either having to stop trading or operate a reduced workforce.
The pandemic has highlighted the advantages of automation, and its usefulness once things eventually return to normal. Reducing our interactions with others has been key over the last year. In particular, the strain on the NHS has shown how human-free technologies could help us now, and in the future. Operations for 4.7 million people were postponed due to the pandemic, but if we had machines in place that could carry out even just routine surgeries, we might have been able to reduce that number significantly.
The current issue with developing more advanced, general-purpose technologies is that the science required to produce them is high-cost and high-risk. Currently, the people benefitting the most from new technologies are the investors and shareholders, who have thus far tended to back more achievable developments. But we need these more advanced technologies to go forward as a society.Whilst the Fourth Industrial Revolution may be getting off to a rocky start, the last year has highlighted how important the technologies it will bring about are. When we eventually get there, every aspect of our lives will change. It is predicted that 1.5 million jobs in England are at risk from automation, however, new roles will need to be created to manage these technologies. Remarkably, 85% of people currently in education will have jobs that don’t yet exist. The shift to a completely different way of working, and the developments in science needed to get there, might be daunting, but the huge benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are worth getting excited about.
Illustration: Samantha Fulton