Are you ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Many people are shocked and a little bit frightened by the Cambridge Analytica scandal – the revelations that personal data of 50 million Facebook users was accessed by the political consulting and marketing firm without the consent of the users – but the reality is that while we are right to be shocked, we shouldn’t be surprised. There is a lot of truth in the saying, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you ARE the product.” Misuse of our personal data is the ugly side – and some might say the inevitable result – of our love affair with all things digital.

We live in the digital age. Many of the tools we use every day and take for granted…applications, gadgets and services that make our lives easier and more enjoyable…only exist because we share our data. Waze not only navigates us to our destination, it warns us of speed cameras and broken-down vehicles on the road. Why? Because other road users have reported the incidents, and in so doing left a digital footprint of exactly where they were at precisely what time. Waze even knows what speed they were doing when they filed their reports.

Do you use Siri on your iPhone, or buy books from Amazon and enjoy the recommendations that are “especially for you”? Or do you choose a film because Netflix suggests you might enjoy it? These are all examples of artificial intelligence (AI), but they have become so insidious in our lives that we barely give them a second thought.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has already begun

Everyone knows about the Industrial Revolution – the mechanical, social and economic upheaval caused by the introduction of water and steam power that transformed previously manual and largely home-based industries. But if we’re in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, what were the second and third? You can be forgiven for being a bit uncertain. We’ll explain.

The Second Industrial Revolution came about with the harnessing of electricity for everyday use – the so-called electrification of society. Assembly line manufacture (introduced by Henry Ford) and mass production were the other key characteristics of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The Third Industrial Revolution is popularly dated to the 1970s, the era when computing became mainstream. The use of electronics and information technology accelerated automation.

What, then, is the Fourth Revolution? The term was coined by Klaus Schwab, of the World Economic Forum, who has written a book entitled Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He says, “A Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” International management consulting firm Deloitte, which has conducted a global survey to measure business and government readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, defines “Industry 4.0” as the “…fourth in a series of industrial revolutions…characterised by their ability to transform economies, jobs and even society itself through the introduction of new technologies and processes.”


What are some of the features of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? What are the terms you need to know? It’s easy to think of digitalisation as simply Artificial Intelligence, or AI. But in fact AI is only one component of the Fourth Revolution, and in itself is multi-faceted. In addition to AI, the Fourth Revolution includes robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing.

AI is made up of machine learning, neural networks, deep learning, narrow AI and general AI. Apple’s Siri is an example of narrow AI – machine intelligence that can only learn how to do specific tasks, such as responding to simple customer service queries, making hotel bookings, organising your diary, etc. Netflix and Amazon customer recommendations are examples of machine learning: the computer “learns”, through analysis of thousands upon thousands of customer purchases, what readers of a particular book or viewers of a particular film like and makes suggestions to the next purchaser accordingly. Neural networks are networks of interconnected layers of algorithms that feed data into each other and underpin machine learning.

All around us

Examples of artificial intelligence, in addition to those given above, include self-driving cars, drones, and software that translates or invests (think Google Translate). Digital fabrication technologies interact with the biological world to give us medical advances such as nerve stimulators that enable a paraplegic to walk. These are just a few ways digitalisation is transforming modern life.

What does it mean for work – and for communities?

We’ve talked mostly about the impact of the digital revolution on our personal lives, with Siri, Waze, Netflix, etc. But the changes wrought by digitalisation will ripple across all aspects of our lives, including the world of work (for employees) and the conduct of business (for industries and leaders). There is a fear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will herald the replacement of human labour with robots, and work as we know it will change. Undoubtedly work will change, as it did with the previous industrial revolutions, but that does not automatically mean that the impact will be negative, as many people fear (job losses being the biggest worry). There may be some loss of low-skilled jobs, which can easily be done by robots. But technological innovation creates new opportunities. And there will likely be social consequences of the Fourth Revolution as well.

In this series of articles we will look at how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will redefine work in the future, what it means for communities and our social compacts, and in particular what it means for South Africa. From the Deloitte report: “Three countries in particular – India, South Africa and China – envision social upheavals and increased income inequality as a result of Industry 4.0. These countries have all recently undergone major economic or political changes, which, in some cases, resulted in high growth, but also introduced previously unknown social fissures. This may contribute to their higher sensitivity about weathering additional social issues in the future.”[1]

Like it or not, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will not leave South Africa behind. It’s time to get on board!

[1] Deloitte Insights: The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here—are you ready?: 2018. pg 6.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *