Weapons of Mass Disruption: The Fourth Industrial Revolution is Here
According to noted German economist, Klaus Schwab, we are on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution – a seismic shift that is beyond anything humankind has experienced.
The first, second and third industrial revolutions gave us steam power, electricity and electronics respectively. Great technological achievements no doubt; but when the assortment of emerging technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution – artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet-of-Things (IoT), 3D printing, bio printing, gene editing, autonomous vehicles (AVs) and so on – come online, the world as we know it today will be transformed in unprecedented ways.
We can all look forward to enhanced longevity. Given persistent shortage in human organs for transplant, bio-printing – a process which draws on 3D printers to create human organs – will let hospitals ‘print out’ human organs on-demand. Cutting down on their development cost, new drugs will be experimented on 3D printed human organs to quickly establish their efficacy and safety. Gene editing can mean that babies in the future will be born free of many genetic disorders like Down syndrome, heart defects and blood diseases.
Despite recent reports of crashes, AVs will enhance road safety for users. With just 14 minor accidents after nearly two million miles on the road, Google’s self-driving cars are proving that AVs can be as safe as – if not safer than – automobiles operated by humans. Meanwhile, IoT will automate much of our daily lives. For instance, IoT-enabled coffeemakers will automatically brew us a cup of hot coffee moments before we wake up while refrigerators will text us when we are running low on food and air-conditioners will turn off on their own once we step out the door.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its Discontents
There is no space here to list all the potential benefits of the fourth industrial revolution but suffice to say, our lives will be radically transformed in the coming decades. Nonetheless, like every major technological advancement in human history, we can expect the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution to give rise to fresh problems even as they promise myriad benefits. Indeed, as we enter the era of the fourth industrial revolution, the question of how this seismic shift will impact our lives is becoming more pressing.
Going forward, we can expect quite a few disruptive forces to come into play.
It is entirely possible that AVs will eliminate a significant number of jobs in the transportation sector because these high-tech automobiles are not only safer but more efficient than human-driven ones. Meanwhile, AI-enabled robotics are expected to destroy many routinized and structured jobs in the service sector. The convenience associated with 3D printing could lead to many retailers, manufacturers and even global supply chains faltering. In the last three industrial revolutions, machines substituted manual labor but bear in mind that living standards improved over time because more value-added work was created. What might presumably be different this time with the fourth industrial revolution is that subsequent job growth could be minimal because many of the new jobs created might well be filled by AI-enabled robotics – not humans.
Political instability could surface if technological unemployment – that is, joblessness resulting from the introduction of new technologies – becomes persistent and entrenched. When large segments of the population lose their livelihood, it is fair to assume that they would be frustrated and angry. As a result, they might gravitate toward fringe politicians instead of putting their fate in the hands of sensible figures. In extreme cases, some might even lose faith in established institutions and turn to alternative narratives that are not only fundamentally unsound but violent in nature. Today, the widespread appeal of fringe politicians like U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump and German far-right politician Uwe Junge are perfect examples of how the triumvirate of political instability, rising unemployment and inclusive growth are intricately-linked.
In the era of the fourth industrial revolution, it is conceivable that only a select few with the fortuitous combination of talent and luck will be successful. However, when only a handful of people can strike it rich, income inequality will surely widen. Some disparity is to be expected in life except that high rates of inequality can potentially destabilize societies and weaken social cohesion. Rising income inequality is not the only concern because what if the wealthy turns to gene-editing to give their offspring superior traits – further consolidating their wealth and social status? Conventions now preclude the use of gene-editing to establish a pregnancy but there is no guarantee that all countries will continue to play by the rules as global competition heats up.
As the assortment of technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution come online, the danger is that hackers could exploit digital weaknesses in them to cause chaos. The December 2015 cyber-attack on Ukraine’s power grid – which left nearly 230,000 Ukrainians without power for up to six hours – demonstrates that such attacks are not only possible but very real. In theory, no digitally-based system is impervious to cyber intrusion so as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, we will also become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. So far, researchers in the U.S. have demonstrated that they can breach a Jeep Cherokee’s on-board computer system, take control of the vehicle and crash it at will. Cyber criminals could also insert hidden flaws and defects into 3D printed products. Now that 3D printed parts are being used in jet engines, this form of cyber-sabotage is particularly insidious for it enables terrorists to crash airplanes without having to ever step into them.
Coping with the Fourth Industrial Revolution
In the era of the fourth industrial revolution – when disruptive forces are likely to unsettle longstanding institutions – what might the role of the state be?
Contrary to the belief of libertarians, the role of the state will actually become more important even as the center of gravity shifts to the corporate sector. In a world deeply dependent on technology, those who hold a tight grip on it will invariably wield a tremendous amount of power.
Hence, it is foreseeable that in the era of the fourth industrial revolution, the state’s influence will progressively be eclipsed by those companies and businesses that firmly control the technologies associated with this seismic shift. And from a policy standpoint, a significantly weakened state coupled with a greatly empowered corporate sector can create a serious problem.
This is because the corporate sector is accountable only to shareholders and driven foremost by profits. So when technological unemployment hits, it is not incentivized to employ those workers made redundant by new technology. Only the state – through its exclusive use of monetary and fiscal policies – will be able to step in to stimulate demand and generate employment. Even if the state were unable to create jobs, it can at least help the poor and weak through its social programs. While the corporate sector does help the needy at times, only the state retains the policy tools and strategic planning that can prevent the emergence of a persistent underclass.
Apart from that, the state will also be needed to provide security. As mentioned earlier, the fourth industrial revolution has the potential to destabilize societies and unsettle established institutions. And that in turn, can sweeten the appeal of alternative narratives. Digital vulnerabilities in the novel technologies associated with this seismic shift can also lead to a spike in cyber-attacks. Whether it is fending off terrorists or hackers, the state’s role in keeping us safe will actually become more important. Again, while private enterprises do perform a number of ancillary security functions, public safety and national defense still rest principally with the state. There are good reasons why these national priorities are public goods and it is important to bear them in mind as we enter the era of the fourth industrial revolution.
The fourth industrial revolution will unleash disruptive forces which we are only beginning to recognize and because we have become so dependent on technology, unplugging is no longer an option. The real test then is how we can cope with the disruptive forces coming from this seismic shift. The corporate sector has no real incentives to deal with these challenges nor in some sense, can it be fully trusted to do so. Only the state – with ultimate control over the policy-making process and the nation’s resources – has the power to do so effectively. As we enter the era of the fourth industrial revolution, a strong state is no longer just an abstract idea but at a fundamental level, the key to being future-ready.
This article was originally posted in RSIS Commentary.