The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a new age of technology-driven existence being discussed at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2016, has the potential to usher in opportunities for wealth, efficiency, and access to a global population.

We are beginning to see glimpses of what this new age will bring - drones, self-driving cars, virtual experiences, genetic breakthroughs - and how different, for better or worse, life can become for many of us.

What we must also debate is how the Fourth Industrial Revolution could stand to broaden and deepen the inequality gap between those who have the ability to prosper from this new digital world, and those that are held back by systemic challenges in their communities - one of the most critical of which is illiteracy and the inequality of educational opportunities.

A superhuman race - that can’t read a street sign?

This week, I arrive at the Meeting of the New Champions with my own questions on how, without access to a quality education for so many children around the world, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be sustainable and successful. How we can feasibly anticipate a superhuman race if a large percentage of the global population has still not achieved the basic building block of functional literacy, unable to read a street sign or a newspaper headline, much less have access to the internet? How will we unlock the talent and consumer potential that is needed to harness the wave of momentum that so many of the world’s greatest minds are anticipating?

Image: OECD

As gender-biased sex selection continues to skew the ratio between males and females born in countries like Vietnam, with projections showing that by 2035 there will be 10% more men than women in the population if we do not halt current trends, why are we as a society not more concerned about shifting perceptions and raising awareness about the importance of educating women and girls?

If we do not educate the youth of the world and elevate the value of women in society, I believe the Fourth Industrial Revolution will falter at the hand of egregious inequality.

While technology continues to introduce societies to seemingly endless possibilities — some promising and some concerning — it is short-sighted to think that an illiterate mother of five in a rural village in India will be able to benefit from the cutting-edge products or services being produced in her country, or that one of her daughters will be empowered to pursue a career as a biological scientist or robotics engineer, inventing a game-changing technology to further the ‘revolution’.

Shabnam, an alumna of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, is exactly who comes to mind when I think about the precarious path we are forging and why it is so important to stop, and focus on putting the necessary resources into education so we are ensuring the highest return on investment as we usher in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Shabnam was born into a traditional rural community in Rajasthan where girls were not educated beyond their primary years. In fact, a school did not even exist beyond grade five. Today, Shabnam is flourishing at a polytechnic university, studying to be an engineer, thanks to Room to Read’s interventions. Could Shabnam be a key player in the Fourth Industrial Revolution - inventing a future technology or publishing innovative research findings?

Unequivocally, yes. But had she not been provided academic support, mentorship and life skills training, or had perceptions about the value of educating girls not been shifted among the elders in her community, she would have continued to be one of millions who remain in the shadows of opportunity.

The debate over whether technology is a successful and sustainable solution to education challenges in some of the poorest parts of the world is a topic that I am asked about frequently as the interventions my organization, Room to Read espouses, physical books and trained teachers among them, are not digital in nature.

It is logical, to some, to assume the Fourth Industrial Revolution can solve the global crisis of illiteracy —maybe through cloud-based learning or virtual instruction — just as it is working to eradicate health epidemics and alleviate security challenges. At Room to Read, we have the experience derived from impacting over 10 million children in areas of the world where the need is greatest, to say with confidence that this is not a viable plan of action on its own. It is crucial that we continue to focus on training government teachers effectively and that we ensure children are progressing in their literacy skills by having access to quality reading materials so that the foundation for future learning is put in place.

Additionally, we must support girls to complete secondary school and foster in them the skills needed to succeed beyond the classroom - like confidence, financial planning and self-awareness - with mentors from their own community. These interventions must be put in place universally, otherwise millions of children in low-income countries will not reach their full potential and therefore will be disengaged from the Fourth Industrial Revolution - undermining its sustainability. In essence, we can’t overlook making further progress towards building the human capacity to fully participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a critical component of any path to success for all.

I could not agree more with Klaus Schwab when he stated, “We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them.” I have previously shared my thoughts on what empowerment really means. Nothing is more empowering than the ability to read and write, to navigate one’s own future, and discover within oneself the right to choose. Education is the ultimate weapon of empowerment.