Fourth Industrial Revolution

The next industry revolution will not be televised

"This industrial revolution is also prompting new business models." Image: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

Gary Coleman
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If you’re still just talking about the fourth industrial revolution, you can stop theorising, because it’s here and making an impact that matters on business and society.

With the digital transformation of manufacturing well underway, the only thing needed to launch the next industrial revolution is wider access to exponential technologies — robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, 3D printing, nanotechnology, quantum computing. And now that these technologies are more affordable and their size more manageable, the fourth industrial revolution is up and running.

The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos this year is focused on this industrial revolution for good reason. Consider these statistics. The 4.9 billion items connected via the Internet of Things (IoT) in 2015 will reach 25 billion by 2020. Advanced manufacturing technologies are expected to double in value to $85 billion-plus globally by 2019. Venture capital investment in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) has grown more than 70 percent per year since 2011.

But to the naked eye, it may be hard to discern this revolution.

For example, take innovation. The design and testing of ideas is now much easier with exponential technologies, enabling an accelerated innovation cycle. One major car company is using virtual reality to test out new designs in near real-time instead of waiting for physical prototypes. The data that is now gathered via ever-proliferating sensors can be analyzed using machine learning and predictive analytics—allowing innovators to better assess the potential impact of their ideas.

This industrial revolution is also prompting new business models. Data and analyses generated by sensors and super-computers are now becoming business offerings in their own right. A real estate listing site may use its data to analyze and predict housing prices. Or a seed company can use its research paired with predictive modeling to provide specialized planting recommendations. This exponential ability may even transform physical producers into information providers and enable still others to enter a field with little capital investment.

And while we’ve all heard that technologies like AI will eliminate jobs, what we don’t hear about is the current lack of people who can design, build, and maintain exponential technologies. AI talent is already being fought over by the largest tech companies, with some enterprises funding academic centers and professorships to cultivate talent. This kind of thinking will be critical given predicted shortages - just in the United States alone, it is estimated there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings by 2020 and only enough graduates to fill about 30 percent.

To be sure, the fourth industrial revolution is still in its nascent state. But with the pace of change and disruption to business and society so swift these days, the time to join in is now.

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