There are not going to be driverless Ubers in Lagos anytime soon. Robots are not going to steal millions of jobs from American miners or factory workers. Nor will our genes be spliced with technological enhancements to defeat diseases and to supercharge our neurons. Not yet, at least.
But we are beginning to see symptoms of the globally disruptive phenomenon known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).1 Rapid periods of past technological industrialization have created tectonic shifts in societies throughout human history. Diverse technologies have grown and scaled to knock off behemoths and traditions to become the next giants themselves.
Some of these technologies that will define next-generation human enterprise, connectivity, and lifestyles already are here, but they haven’t been scaled to everyday utilization. For example, the vertical lift technology for flying cars has been around for years, but the regulatory environment, legal considerations, and other issues currently outweigh the benefit to innovate. Just because society has these technologies does not mean they will roll out. There are growing speed bumps to technology around privacy, competition, and equitable access. Technologies’ dramatic impact on everyday life could take a long time, but just like previous revolutions, if we do not plan for these evolutions now, we won’t benefit from them in the future.
The first industrial revolution, powered by the steam engine, dramatically spurred production and urbanization. New forms of energy such as electricity and oil defined the second industrial revolution whereas the third industrial revolution saw the introduction of digital technologies such as computers, cell phones, and the internet, which in turn have revolutionized communications and trade. The Fourth Industrial Revolution also encompasses those digital technologies, but the phenomenon is defined more by next-generation innovations—such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and nanotechnology—becoming more complex and irreplaceably ingrained in all aspects of human life, including our physiology.2 Although the revolutions all were defined by innovation, their most important legacies are their impacts on humanity and society.
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