The technology revolution

by Scott Corfe

The First Industrial Revolution saw water and steam used to power and mechanise production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) 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. These technologies include artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning and “the internet of things” which is seeing an increasing proportion of household and business appliances connected to the internet.

According to the World Economic Forum, there are three reasons why today’s transformations represent more than a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: speed, scope, and systems impact. On speed, when compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. In scope, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country, with robotics and artificial intelligence potentially dramatically changing the types of jobs available in our economy – and the skills needed to perform them. The breadth and depth of these changes could transform the entire system of production, management, and governance.

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As Social Market Foundation research has shown, the benefits of 4IR are potentially enormous. In the workplace, the use of new technologies could end the collapse in productivity growth which has held back wages in the UK economy. Conceivably, productivity could rise so significantly that a four-day working week would become the norm. At home, new connected household appliances could improve energy efficiency and make it much easier to care for other family members. Countries such as Japan are exploring the use of care robots to help get individuals out of bed, and to provide mental stimulation for the elderly.

4IR could revolutionise public service delivery. Wearables – such as smart watches – can “gameify” healthy activities such as walking frequently, awarding individuals with points to incentivise such behaviours. 4IR will allow the development of a healthcare system that increasingly revolves around illness prevention, rather than treatment, by encouraging healthier lifestyles. In education, artificial intelligence and machine learning can provide customised e-learning solutions that are tailored to an individual’s needs and preferred mode of learning.

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Despite this wide range of benefits, 4IR is not without some substantial challenges. As has been widely discussed, the rollout of robotics and artificial intelligence could lead to substantial job losses, requiring many to reskill for new careers. There are also concerns about new technologies being rolled out in a way that undermines dignity in the workplace. Amazon, for example, has come under fire for using technology to set aggressive targets for warehouse workers, leaving some employees too afraid to take time out for a toilet break. Increased use of algorithms in the workplace could see more employees shifted onto precarious “zero hours” contracts, with computers determining the optimal number of hours to be worked in a given day or week.

Critically, there is a key role for policymakers to play in ensuring that the benefits of 4IR outweigh the costs. Our education system needs to be reformed to focus more on adult learners looking to reskill in an age of robots and artificial intelligence. We also need a broad debate about some of the ethical issues associated with 4IR, such as those related to excessive monitoring of employees. Done right, 4IR could dramatically improve our lives. Done wrong, 4IR could leave us disempowered and vulnerable. It is crucial that we get it right.

scott corfe 150Scott Corfe is Chief economist of the Social Market Foundation – a non-partisan thinktank. Before joining, he was Head of Macroeconomics and a Director at the economics consultancy Cebr, where he led much of the consultancy’s thought leadership and public policy research.

The ESRC has partnered with the Social Market Foundation to deliver their popular lunchtime seminar series – Ask the Expert. The Ask the Expert series brings the best policy outputs from the academic community into the heart of Westminster. Closely aligned to the current topics of government consultations and parliamentary inquiries, the series provides a timely opportunity to engage with experts across many policy areas.

You can follow @SMFthinktank and @scottcorfe on Twitter.

This article has been taken from the winter 2018 issue of Society Now, which is out this month.

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