Understand the Technologies Changing the Digital World

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Identify the key virtual-world technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  • Describe how these technologies have already changed the way we live and work.
  • Describe how research now under way with these technologies can change how we live and work in the future.

Change Is Already Here

So far, we’ve talked about changes impacting the physical world. But there are powerful technologies making their mark on the digital world. In this unit, we explore how artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, computational technologies, and virtual and augmented reality are transforming the digital world like never before.

We’ll start with AI.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In fictional movies about AI, the story always seems to be about evil robots who gain autonomy, and subsequently set out to control or kill all of humanity. If you haven’t heard anything about AI beyond what you’ve seen at the movies, it’s understandable if it seems scary.

Let’s leave the movies aside, and talk about what AI is actually doing today. AI works in the background to power a wide variety of applications, from autonomous vehicles and robots to voice assistants and shopping bots. To get even more specific:

  • The autocomplete feature on your phone? AI powers that.
  • The recommendations you get from the websites where you buy clothing, music, or household goods? AI powers those, too.
  • The ability to recognize your face in a photo? Yep, that’s also AI.

Machines powered by AI today perform many tasks—recognizing complex patterns, synthesizing information, drawing conclusions, forecasting—on a scale and at a speed beyond human capability.

In the future, AI is going to be even more pervasive, helping make every company and every employee smarter, faster, and more productive. Each of us can have our own AI-powered digital personal assistant that’s constantly listening and gathering relevant data to anticipate our needs and perhaps even take action on our behalf. 

But don’t fret about a robot revolution just yet. Intelligent machines can surpass human computational power and analytical speed, but it’s still human beings who are defining the capabilities of these machines. Today, AI is empowering human ingenuity—not replacing it. 

Blockchain Applications

Blockchain is the new big data. Everyone is talking about it, and no one seems to really know what it is.

Let’s start there. Blockchain is just a way of recording and sharing data in such a way that the same data is visible to everyone. Further, blockchain ensures that the data cannot be changed without everyone knowing exactly who did what.

Blockchain technology fosters trust between two parties, even if those people are anonymous. To say it more technically, blockchain is a shared, programmable, decentralized, cryptographically secure ledger for storing digital objects and transactions. No single user or institution controls blockchain applications. Anyone can scrutinize them.

For example, Bitcoin is an example of a blockchain application. Bitcoin is a digital currency, with a public ledger for all transactions. In addition to digital currency, blockchain technology can handle any transaction that is expressible as computer code. Possible scenarios include:

  • Insurance claims
  • Votes
  • Real estate titles
  • Driver’s licenses

Someday, voting and national identities can perhaps be supported through blockchain technologies. Blockchain can possibly even be used to trace where your products came from and that they are not fakes. Blockchain is so revolutionary, people are discovering new applications for it every day.

New Computational Technologies

Our computers are getting smarter and faster, thanks to breakthroughs in material science and physics. New forms of computing, such as quantum computing, offer the possibility of creating computing systems millions of times more powerful than current ones.

Don’t know what quantum computers are? Well, let’s start by explaining digital computers. Today’s computers store information as 1s and 0s. Quantum computers use quantum bits, or qubits, to encode information as 0s, 1s, or both at the same time. This enables quantum computers to represent multiple values simultaneously, performing calculations millions of times faster than conventional computers. 

Quantum systems have the potential to supercharge AI, speed the discovery of new pharmaceuticals and materials, and model highly complex data models in seconds.   

Virtual and Augmented Reality

Want to take a tour of ancient Rome? Learn how to perform complex medical procedures? Become a participant in that movie about evil robots? Look no further than virtual reality (VR).

VR headsets offer immersive simulated experiences but are bulky

VR offers immersive digital experiences that simulate the real world. Today, VR requires a bulky, expensive headset to enter the virtual world, but that is changing quickly. Over time, we can expect the technology to get smaller and less costly. 

So how is VR different than augmented reality (AR)? Well, VR allows you to explore a virtual reality, while AR merges the digital and physical worlds. With an AR-enabled device, you can walk down the street and see useful information pop up in your field of vision relevant to your location. 

Other relevant AR applications include training, or working on objects that are scarce or too expensive to use for practice. For example, an architect can experiment with the interior design of a building, overlaying data and virtual images onto the physical space. Or doctors are able to overlay a person’s MRI on the space where they are going to operate.

AR and VR can reshape how we interface with computers over the next decades. Don’t be surprised to see people begin to wear more and more devices that support mixing the virtual world with the physical one. 

Bringing Together the 10 Technologies

Each of these 10 technological advances is paving the way for significant changes in our personal and work lives. But it’s the combination of these technologies that provides the foundation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For example:

  • Robots take advantage of artificial intelligence.
  • Small and efficient batteries power our phones.
  • Arrays of connected sensors alert us when the car needs servicing, or when all the lights are on back at the house.
  • Scientists use powerful computation capabilities, 3D printing, and biotechnology to engineer new materials.

We can easily imagine a bright future powered by the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But if we’re not careful, these technologies can be a destabilizing force for society. 

The same way that the three previous industrial revolutions had positive and negative impacts, new technologies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution carry potentially negative consequences. AI and genetic engineering in the wrong hands can alter our future in undesirable ways if the goals are not aligned with the common good. Plus, the benefits of the technologies can fall to only some global citizens, leaving many people’s views out as they spread and change the world.

It’s a new era. Governments, business leaders, the scientific community, and citizens need to work together to define the paths and direct the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in ways that minimize risks and improve the human condition for all. 

Change can be both exciting and scary. It’s understandable to feel uncertain about some or all of this. So in the next module in this trail, we talk about the impacts of these technologies, including the positive and the negative, as we continue to explore the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


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