13 signs the fourth industrial revolution is almost here

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The pace and scale of technological change is so frenetic that some predict we are entering a fourth industrial revolution, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things and big data. Indeed, the changes are coming so thick and fast, that it can be difficult to take a step back and attempt to understand the phenomenon. Searching for metaphors to describe what is happening, Klaus Schwab chose a tsunami: “You see small signs at the shore, and suddenly the wave sweeps in.” The transformations are so overwhelming, that rather than riding the waves, we let them overpower us.

But it’s time to come up for air. We spoke with 800 leading experts and executives from the ICT community to get their take on what our digital future looks like. What big trends will define it? What timescale are we talking? And what impact will it have on society? Here are their 13 signs that a fourth industrial revolution might be around the corner.

Figure 1

1. Implantable and wearable technologies

Remember how bulky mobile phones used to be in the 80s and even the 90s? By 2025, you might look back at your smartphone and say the same thing. The vast majority (82%) of respondents said that in the next 10 years, the first implantable mobile phone will be available commercially. Even more of them (91%) said that 10% of us would be wearing clothes that are connected to the internet.

2. Our digital presence

Just 10 years ago, a “digital presence” meant having an email address. Now, even your grandparents have a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a personal website. By 2025, 80% of people across the world will have a digital presence, according to 84% of the experts we surveyed.

3. Vision as the new interface

If, like me, you were unfortunate enough to need glasses from a young age, you’ll remember the relentless taunting from classmates. But by 2025, we bespectacled folks could be the coolest kids on the block: 86% of those surveyed think that 10% of  reading glasses will be connected to the internet, allowing the wearer to access a wealth of apps and data on the go.

4. Ubiquitous computing

For those of us privileged enough to live in places where internet access is the norm, it might seem like everything has moved online: but still, 57% of the world is not connected. Almost 80% of respondents said that in the next decade, 90% of the global population will have regular access to the internet, democratizing the many benefits of the digital revolution.

5. A supercomputer in your pocket

Last year, global mobile penetration rates stood at 50%. According to 81% of those we surveyed, within the next decade, 90% of the world will be using smartphones. Not only will mobile penetration rates increase, but the devices themselves will be even more sophisticated, making yesterday’s supercomputers pale in comparison.

6. Storage for all

Digital hoarders, rejoice: you can continue producing vast quantities of content without having to worry about where to store it. By 2025, 91% of the experts we interviewed said most of us (90%) will have unlimited and free digital storage.

7. The internet of and for things

Glasses, clothing, accessories – with increasing computer power and falling hardware prices, we can connect almost anything to the internet. Within the next decade, there will be 1 trillion sensors connected to the internet of things, according to 89% of respondents. The opportunities this development will provide are almost limitless: connected sensors will improve safety (of everything from planes to food), boost productivity and help us manage our resources more efficiently and sustainably.

8. Smart cities and smarter homes

Many of us are now lucky enough to have a couple of connected devices in our homes: maybe a Sonos wireless sound system and a smart TV. But by 2025, 70% of survey respondents think 50% of internet traffic delivered to homes will be for appliances and devices such as smart fridges, thermostats and security systems. Our cities are a little bit further behind: only 64% of respondents said we would have a city with a population of 50,000 with no traffic lights. But of those cars stuck at the red light, 10% of them will be driverless, according to 79% of those surveyed.

 9. Big data for big insights

The first government census took place almost 6,000 years ago and since then, very little has changed: in many countries, residents still receive a paper-based form in the mail. But with all the data we’re now producing, this might soon be a thing of the past. Most survey respondents (83%) think that by 2025, at least one government will have replaced its census with big data sources.

10. Robots, decision-making and the world of work

We’ve all heard about the benefits of a diverse board of directors: but does that extend to robots? Maybe not, because less than half (45%) of respondents thought that by 2025, we would see the first AI machine on a corporate board. That doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing robots in the workplace in the next 10 years: 75% of those surveyed said 30% of corporate audits would be carried out by robots, and 86% said we would see the first robotic pharmacist in the US.

11. The rise of digital currencies

Today, only a small fraction of the world’s GDP – around 0.025% – is held on the blockchain, a digital ledger where transactions made in currencies like bitcoin are recorded. Only 58% of respondents thought that amount would increase to 10% by 2025. But by that date, 73% of them said they thought we’d see a government collect taxes via a blockchain.

12. The sharing economy

When April Rinne, a sharing economy expert, came to Davos two years ago, very few people knew of the concept: “Whenever I asked anyone I met if they had heard of the phrase, I would receive blank stares.” Today, Uber and Airbnb, two of the most well-known sharing economy firms, are the most and third-most valuable start-ups in the world. Their growth looks set to continue: according to 67% of respondents, by 2025 more trips will be through car shares than in private cars.

13. 3D printing

A recent article on our blog referred to 3D printing as “one of the pillars of the future of manufacturing”. The experts we surveyed agreed: 84% of them said that within the next 10 years, the first 3D-printed car will be in production, and 81% said 5% of consumer products would be printed in 3D. But the technology will transform more than just manufacturing: 76% of respondents said that by 2025, medical professionals will have carried out the first transplant of a 3D-printed liver.

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum.

Image: An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer, in an office in Warsaw. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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