Look 10 years into the future and make some predictions. Will we have 3D printed cars? Will we have robotic pharmacies, implantable mobile phones, 3D printed liver transplants? Will we have machines that read our mind?
If you believe the answer is “yes” to these questions, you are not alone. A recent poll by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software & Society asked those very questions. More than 75% of respondents saw many of them as realistic. We are about to witness a Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will impact every aspect of society. Will the world be better for it, or worse?
To answer that question, let me start by explaining what this Fourth Industrial Revolution is and how it differs from previous ones.
First, why is it the Fourth Industrial Revolution? The first industrial revolution began in the latter half of the 18th century, and brought us mechanical production through the steam engine, cotton spinning and then railroads. The second industrial revolution took place around the turn of the 20th century and brought mass production through assembly lines and electrification. The third industrial revolution was the computer revolution, starting in the 1960s, that brought us the mainframe and then personal computing, as well as the internet.
Today we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will affect governments, businesses and economies in very substantial ways. We should not underestimate the change ahead of us, as there are at least three differences between this revolution and the previous ones:
- The first is speed. Previous industrial revolutions took decades to unfold. Today’s revolution is engulfing us like a tsunami.
- The second is that it is not related to one area. It is not just about mobile networks, or sensors, but also about nanotechnology, brain research, 3D printing, materials science, computing, networks, and the interplay between all of these. This combination will create a very strong force. In addition, the accessibility and affordability of complex technologies will spread them farther and faster.
- The third difference is that this revolution is not about a single product or service innovation – it is about innovation of entire systems. Take, for example, the personal transport-sharing platform Uber. It is not producing new cars; it is producing an entirely new mobility system. It is creating the shared economy.
That brings us to the question of impact. In short, we will see the effects of this revolution everywhere. Let me give three examples:
- The impact on business and economies. Entrepreneurship and agility will become much more important and, generally, small and medium enterprises are more agile than bigger ones. In the future, it will not be the big fish that eats the small fish, it will be the fast fish that eats the slow fish. Think of Google, which has created Alphabet as a platform for several smaller and more focused businesses. In banking, the “fintech” or financial technology revolution will cause rapid disintermediation. In the end, the business models of each and every industry will be restructured.
- The impact on skills and labour. In the past we had creative destruction. Jobs destroyed by innovation could be replaced by new roles in new sectors. Today, we are no longer certain how this will happen. Technology will replace many jobs in the upper-skilled sector. Only countries that are preparing for this, by upskilling and reskilling, will win.
- The impact on governments I believe will be more important than ever before. Indeed, in this fast-paced, new world, the increased tempo of innovation will have to be supported by more responsive standards and rules in government. Governments can approach the revolution in two ways: they can either say: “everything that is not forbidden is allowed”; or “everything that is not allowed is forbidden”. In the end, they will have to find a middle way.
Very importantly, will the Fourth Industrial Revolution have a human heart and soul? Again, imagine living in the future, when robots and humans live side by side. Who would you trust, human or robot? Concretely:
- If you were told you had a life-threatening illness and a human doctor prescribed treatment regime A, while an artificially intelligent robot prescribed treatment regime B, which treatment regime would you follow?
- If you were falsely accused of a crime, would you rather be tried by a human judge or by an AI judge?
These are not necessarily hypothetical questions – IBM’s Watson robot already helps recommend leukaemia treatments at MD Anderson in the US. Thus, we must be better prepared for this industrial revolution and its effects, and we have to start now. We must think about these issues in an integrated way. We must bring together the public sector, the private sector and the best minds in the world. And we must define issues in a proactive way, and create solutions and possible actions.
I believe that, if managed well, the Fourth Industrial Revolution can bring a new cultural renaissance, which will make us feel part of something much larger than ourselves: a true global civilization. I believe the changes that will sweep through society can provide a more inclusive, sustainable and harmonious society. But it will not come easily.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt, at our Annual Meeting in Davos this year, warned that we could see a battle between humans and robots. In this economic struggle, there are two possible outcomes: the Fourth Industrial Revolution could deprive humanity of its heart and soul, or it could lift humanity to a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny.
We can choose the latter option if we work together and create role models for humans and robots. Let us make sure that humans win, and that we cultivate the human traits of belonging, creativity and sensitivity in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Author: Klaus Schwab is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum
Image: A young boy tries to talk to a robot during a science promotional event in Zhengzhou, Henan province, September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer