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Understand the Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on Society and Individuals

Learning Objectives

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

  • Describe how the Fourth Industrial Revolution impacts individuals and societies.
  • Describe the path forward to ensure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a force for good.

Our Values

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing how we live, work, and communicate. It’s reshaping government, education, healthcare, and commerce—almost every aspect of life.

In the future, it can also change the things we value and the way we value them. It can change our relationships, our opportunities, and our identities as it changes the physical and virtual worlds we inhabit and even, in some cases, our bodies.

Changes for Better

New technologies can be powerful agents for good.

Education and access to information can improve the lives of billions of people. Through increasingly powerful computing devices and networks, digital services, and mobile devices, this can become a reality for people around the world, including those in underdeveloped countries.

The social media revolution embodied by Facebook, Twitter, and Tencent has given everyone a voice and a way to communicate instantly across the planet. Today, more than 30% of the people in the world use social media services to communicate and stay on top of world events.

These innovations can create a true global village, bringing billions more people into the global economy. They can bring access to products and services to entirely new markets. They can give people opportunities to learn and earn in new ways, and they can give people new identities as they see potential for themselves that wasn’t previously available.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution, finally, will change not only what we do but also who we are. It will affect our identity and all the issues associated with it: our sense of privacy, our notions of ownership, our consumption patterns, the time we devote to work and leisure, and how we develop our careers, cultivate our skills, meet people, and nurture relationships.” —Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Online shopping and delivery services—including by drone—are already redefining convenience and the retail experience. The ease of delivery can transform communities, even in remote places, and jumpstart the economies of small or rural areas.

In the physical realm, advances in biomedical sciences can lead to healthier lives and longer life spans. They can lead to innovations in neuroscience, like connecting the human brain to computers to enhance intelligence or experience a simulated world. Imagine all that robot power with human problem-solving skills.

Advances in automotive safety through Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies can reduce road fatalities and insurance costs, and carbon emissions. Autonomous vehicles can reshape the living spaces of cities, architecture, and roads themselves, and free up space for more social and human-centered spaces.

Digital technology can liberate workers from automatable tasks, freeing them to concentrate on addressing more complex business issues and giving them more autonomy. It can also provide workers with radically new tools and insights to design more creative solutions to previously insurmountable problems.

Changes for Worse

However, while the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the power to change the world positively, we have to be aware that the technologies can have negative results if we don’t think about how they can change us.

We build what we value. This means we need to remember our values as we’re building with these new technologies. For example, if we value money over family time, we can build technologies that help us make money at the expense of family time. In turn, these technologies can create incentives that make it harder to change that underlying value.

People have a deep relationship with technologies. They are how we create our world, and we have to develop them with care. More than ever, it’s important that we begin right.

We have to win this race between the growing power of the technology, and the growing wisdom with which we manage it. We don’t want to learn from mistakes. —Max Tegmark, Life 3.0

Biotechnology can lead to controversial advances such as designer babies, gene drives (changing the inherited traits of an entire species), or implants required to become competitive candidates for schools or jobs. Innovations in robotics and automation can lead to lost jobs, or at least jobs that are very different and value different skills.

Artificial intelligence, robotics, bioengineering, programming tools, and other technologies can all be used to create and deploy weapons.

Social media can erase borders and bring people together, but it also can also intensify the social divide. And it gives voice to cyber-bullying, hate speech, and spreading false stories. We have to decide what kind of social media rules we want to create, but we also have to accept that social media is reshaping what we value and how we create and deploy those rules.

In addition, being always connected can turn into a liability, with no respite from the continuous overload of data and connections.

Changes in Employment

Artificial intelligence is unleashing a whole new level of productivity and augmenting our lives in many ways. As in past industrial revolutions, it can also be a disruptive force, dislocating people from jobs and surfacing questions about the relationship between humans and machines.

It’s inevitable that jobs are going to be impacted as artificial intelligence automates a variety of tasks. However, just as the Internet did 20 years ago, the artificial intelligence revolution is going to transform many jobs—and spawn new kinds of jobs that drive economic growth. Workers can spend more time on creative, collaborative, and complex problem-solving tasks that machine automation isn’t well suited to handle.

However, workers with less education and fewer skills are at a disadvantage as the Fourth Industrial Revolution progresses. Businesses and governments need to adapt to the changing nature of work by focusing on training people for the jobs of tomorrow. Talent development, lifelong learning, and career reinvention are going to be critical to the future workforce.

Changes in Equality

People are asking whether the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the road to a better future for all. The power of technology is increasing rapidly and facilitating extraordinary levels of innovation. And as we know, more people and things in the world are becoming connected. But that doesn’t necessarily pave the way for a more open, diverse, and inclusive global society. The lessons of previous industrial revolutions include the realization that technology and its wealth generation can serve the interests of small, powerful groups above the rest. Powerful new technologies built on global digital networks can be used to keep societies under undue surveillance while making us vulnerable to physical and cyberattacks. These are the challenges we can face to make sure the combination of technology and politics together don’t create disparities that hinder people.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2017, “the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise income levels and improve the quality of life for all people. But today, the economic benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are becoming more concentrated among a small group. This increasing inequality can lead to political polarization, social fragmentation, and lack of trust in institutions. To address these challenges, leaders in the public and private sectors need to have a deeper commitment to more inclusive development and equitable growth that lifts up all people.”

Many people around the world haven’t yet benefited from previous industrial revolutions. As the authors of Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution point out, at least 600 million people live on smallholder farms without access to any mechanization, living lives largely untouched by the first industrial revolution. Around one-third of the world’s population (2.4 billion) lack clean drinking water and safe sanitation, around one-sixth (1.2 billion) have no electricity—both systems developed in the second industrial revolution. And while the digital revolution means that more than 3 billion people now have access to the Internet, that still leaves more than 4 billion out of a core aspect of the third industrial revolution.

The means that as we appreciate and engage with the exciting technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must work to ensure that the opportunities they bring are well-distributed around the world and across our communities. In particular, we must help those who missed out on the huge increases in quality of life that the first, second, and third industrial revolutions provided.

“Let us together shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.” —Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Changes in Privacy

We value the ability to control what is known about us, and yet we are living in a world where tracking every individual’s personal information is key to delivering more intelligent, personalized services. For example:

  • Facebook tracks what you do so that it knows which content and advertisements are most relevant to you.
  • Smartphones track your location, and you can share that information with apps that recommend places to eat or shop.
  • Retailers analyze your purchase history to recommend products and offer coupons to stimulate more sales.

In the future, you’ll walk into a store and the salesperson will immediately have your name, credit rating, marital status, and past purchases flashed to their augmented-reality virtual screen.

Technological advances are also broadening the scope of surveillance. In the UK today, an estimated 6 million CCTV cameras are recording activity all over the country. Advances in computing power and artificial intelligence can potentially enable law enforcement agencies to track suspected terrorists by analyzing social networks, government records, and other data.

In the future, billions of 3D-printed “smart dust” cameras floating in the air can monitor the activities of humans. From traffic reports to natural disasters, such technology can keep us safer. But it also can watch us when we do not want to be watched.

For consumers, businesses that are transparent about their data collection practices and that prioritize consumer privacy can win our loyalty.

Changes in Trust

Public trust in business, government, the media, and even technology is falling. This is a crisis that is dividing societies and creating instability around the world.

[According to Professor Klaus Schwab, “the biggest global issue is the continued erosion of trust”]

The technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution themselves are neutral, but are they being applied in ways that build trust? Are consumers going to trust that new artificial intelligence and robotic systems can make their lives better, or are they going to be fearful of the machines and those who control them? Are citizens going to trust the institutions and service providers who collect and maintain their data?

For the Fourth Industrial Revolution to generate trust, everyone contributing to it (including you) must collaborate and feel a connection to common objectives. More transparency into how we govern and manage this technology is key, as are security models that boost our confidence that these systems won't be hacked, run amok, or become tools of oppression by those who control them.

Bringing It All Together

The innovations in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, robotics, and other emerging technologies are going to redefine what it means to be human and how we engage with one another and the planet. Our capabilities, our identities, and our potential will all evolve along with the technologies we create.

In the coming decades, we must establish guardrails that keep the advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on a track to benefit all of humanity. We must recognize and manage the potential negative impacts they can have, especially in the areas of equality, employment, privacy, and trust. We have to consciously build positive values into the technologies we create, think about how they are to be used, and design them with ethical application in mind and in support of collaborative ways of preserving what’s important to us.

This effort requires all stakeholders—governments, policymakers, international organizations, regulators, business organizations, academia, and civil society—to work together to steer the powerful emerging technologies in ways that limit risk and create a world that aligns with common goals for the future.

You, as a person, citizen, employee, investor, and social influencer, are a critical stakeholder in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Sharing your thoughts on the technologies and what you value as this revolution unfolds is essential. The world we create through technologies can shape our lives and is the one we pass on to the next generation.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution can compromise humanity's traditional sources of meaning—work, community, family, and identity—or it can lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a sense of shared destiny. The choice is ours.” —Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Resources

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