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Understand the Technologies Changing the Physical World

Learning Objectives

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

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

Let’s Talk About Your Phone

In today’s world, you can place orders, pay bills, listen to music, get a ride, get directions, and monitor your own health, all from the palm of your hand, using your smartphone. Mobile advancements have changed the way people live and work.

But did you ever think about the technologies behind your phone?

There are wireless technologies, allowing you to connect to the Internet without a physical cable. There are mobile-friendly apps and websites, specifically designed to work on your phone. There are secure transmission protocols, allowing you access to financial and health information. And there’s the device itself, your smartphone. All of these technologies, and more, make your experience of using your phone possible.

It’s the same thing with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Just like the technologies powering your phone, there are 10 emerging technologies driving this revolution forward.

The 10 Technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In this module, you discover the technologies that are driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They fall into two distinct categories.

Technologies Changing the Physical World

  • Biotechnology
  • Robotics
  • 3D printing
  • New materials
  • Internet of things (IoT)
  • Energy capture, storage, and transmission

Technologies Changing the Digital World

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Blockchain applications
  • New computational technologies
  • Virtual and augmented reality

Up first, we talk about the technologies changing the physical world. Then in the next unit, we cover what’s changing the digital world.

Let’s dive in.

Biotechnology

When you think about biotechnology, perhaps you think about organ transplants, prosthetic limbs, or genetically modified plants. Or perhaps you remember that one time scientists figured out how to grow dinosaurs in a lab, and the resulting Tyrannosaurus rex that followed. You wonder, did that really happen, or was that just in the movies? This is a murky area to explore, particularly because some of our opinions are informed by fictional stories we see on the big screen.

Let’s try to separate fact from fiction. Biotechnology already has had an enormous impact in medicine, agriculture, biofuel production, and the mitigation of environmental pollution. In biotechnology laboratories around the world, researchers have:

  • Successfully edited defective genes that cause inherited diseases
  • Reengineered the genomes of pigs with the goal of growing organs suitable for human transplantation
  • Given people prosthetic limbs that can feel
  • Helped blind people regain functional eyesight

And the combination of biotechnology with robotics, computer interfaces, and new materials is leading to future innovations.

It’s true that advances in biotechnology invite many ethical questions—about genetically modified plants and animals, about changes to the human genome, and the unknown environmental consequences. These questions are just as important as the advances themselves.

Robotics

Rapid advancements in robotics are leading to big changes. But did you know that robots can do all of this?

  • Harvest crops
  • Build cars
  • Move warehouse inventory
  • Assist in surgery
  • Vacuum your floor while simultaneously entertaining your cat

You’re likely familiar with that last one. But the list doesn’t end there. If you think about it, a self-driving car is a kind of robot on wheels. And many airports now use a robot to take your photo and handle your arrival document information. 

With advances in technology, robots are becoming more intelligent, adaptive, and flexible. Researchers are developing prosthetics and improved cybernetic enhancements that merge more deeply with the human body to restore physical capabilities a person lost or even provide new capabilities.

As with biotechnology advances, robotics innovations raise ethical and practical concerns, particularly around augmenting the human body and the worry that robots replace workers, resulting in lost jobs. 

3D Printing

Yes, you can use a 3D printer to make a tiny statue of yourself riding a rainbow unicorn. But you can also use it to print a transplantable organ, in a process called bioprinting.

Medical professionals use 3D bioprinting to treat patients

3D-printer technology lets us create a physical object by printing layer upon layer from a digital 3D drawing or model. This technology can produce everything from body parts to engine parts. You can print shoes, cars, houses, and more.

And while 3D printing started with simple materials like plastic, advancements in materials are coming. Imagine 3D printing with aluminum, stainless steel, ceramic, or even biological tissue. Potentially, manufacturers can use these printers to create products in a far more cost-effective and customizable way than they can now. Can you imagine a world with dramatically reduced cattle and chicken farming? 

While most 3D printing can give us objects for daily use, or help engineer parts for larger things like airplanes and architecture, researchers are even working to develop tiny 3D-printed “smart dust” devices. Smaller than a grain of sand, with computing power, sensors, wireless communication capabilities, and a long battery life, tiny devices can potentially revolutionize medical imaging, deliver medicinal payloads to fight disease, or take to the air to monitor weather systems. Just make sure you keep your smart dust away from your vacuum robot (and your cat).

New Materials

Do you know what graphene is? No, it’s not a tiny graph, and also it’s not related to your No. 2 graphite pencil. Graphene is:

  • 200 times stronger than steel
  • 1 million times thinner than a human hair
  • An efficient conductor of heat and electricity

Graphene is just one example of what’s called new materials. These are designed materials that are lighter, stronger, more readily recyclable, and more adaptive than materials we’re familiar with now. 

Some new materials are being developed with smart attributes, like the ability to self-clean or self-heal. Imagine a metal that has a memory and can revert to its original shape, or ceramics and crystals that convert pressure into electric energy. 

To further illustrate the point, here are a few examples of smart attributes in new materials.

  • Robots made from shape-memory materials that are folded flat when they’re inactive, but transform into their working shape when activated by heat.
  • Car fenders made of flexible polymers that self-heal, bouncing back to their original shape after low-speed collisions.
  • Paint that more effectively handles wear and tear.

Internet of Things (IoT)

Have you ever tracked a package delivery? Noticed the lights automatically shut off in your office at the end of the day? Worn a device to monitor your heart rate? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve already experienced how IoT is changing the physical world around us.

Here’s how it works. Billions of devices are connected to the Internet, and trillions of sensors communicate with these devices, and with one another. The connected devices, working with the sensors, monitor things like building elevators, checking them for current status and possible problems. Even more, they use artificial intelligence (AI) to predict failures before they happen. 

IoT-based systems are under development to manage manufacturing supply chains, remotely monitor a person’s health, safely drive autonomous vehicles, and measure soil properties to yield better crops. New, higher-bandwidth infrastructure can possibly make sensor data available at almost any time and in almost any place around the world.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the vast digital infrastructure has the potential to let new technologies penetrate nearly every aspect of our lives by layering these capabilities into the physical world around us. 

Energy Capture, Storage, and Transmission

Every industrial revolution to date has involved changes to energy production and use, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is no different. The availability of clean, economical energy is important for the future of the planet and its citizens. Technological advances in renewable energy, fuel efficiency, and energy storage are already helping mitigate climate change and move us to a more carbon-free future.

Of all the changes in technologies, energy technologies are possibly the most important for the world. While the first three industrial revolutions made us more dependent on fossil fuels, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the opportunity to help transition to clean and sustainable energy.

Up Next, What’s Changing the Digital World

So, that was how biotechnology, robotics, 3D printing, new materials, IoT, and energy technologies are transforming the physical world and powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the next unit, we discover the technologies transforming the digital world.

Resources

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