Emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies are rapidly changing how people, business, society and nations interact. Universities have a pivotal role to play. Their ability lies in three main dimensions: developing new technologies; grappling with the broader consequences of the 4IR; and educating the next generation.

Universities' institutional mandate to convene top talent, together with incentive structures that reward long-term research and development, strengthen their power to effect change. But they can take much better advantage of it. Academia should be a vanguard of the 4IR.

Creating new technologies and evaluating broader consequences

Universities are centres of gravity attracting researchers and students. They create a natural groundswell of intellectual capital and knowledge production. Faculty collaborate on pressing issues within their given field. The next generation of thinkers train inside and outside the classroom in the methods necessary for producing knowledge.

Every university researcher - whether in the hard sciences, social sciences or humanities - has a role to play in catalyzing the 4IR, as well as in characterizing its impact. Universities are already contributing through research on key technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology and the cyber domain. This includes both the basic research for conceptualizing new technology, and the applied science to bring new products to market.

In the former area, for example, mathematicians studying number theory and physicists studying quantum mechanics create inputs for developing quantum computing. In the latter area, engineers and inventors create new technologies.

Consider the University of Pennsylvania. At the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception (GRASP) laboratory, engineers are mastering swarming principles to develop autonomous ground and aerial systems. At the medical school, doctors use robotics and neuroscience to create affordable solutions for physical rehabilitation following injury.

Universities must also map the consequences of the 4IR, for people, for economics and for politics. After all, industrial revolutions are times of dislocation, as well as of tremendous growth and opportunity. The shift during the First Industrial Revolution from the field to the factory upended family structures, economic models and global politics. Historians have a role in understanding the potential impact of today’s large-scale changes.

In another area, known as “The Future of Work”, economists map and model industry trends, while psychologists predict how people will react to fundamental changes in the labour market. This endeavour is truly interdisciplinary. It requires insights from philosophers, economists, political scientists, lawyers and more.

Here at the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business professors study how business processes are changing in an age of automation. Architects and designers envision the cities of the future at the Institute for Urban Research. Political scientists study how artificial intelligence and robotics could shape patterns of warfare. Philosophers try to ascertain the ethical implications of new technologies. This research is significant for society. It also explores the non-market implications of change, an important area to which the market does not pay enough attention.Universities also have a dual role to play as convener.

First, they are a forum for bringing together people developing underlying technologies with those mapping potential consequences.” For example, creative collaborations between computer scientists designing algorithms and lawyers concerned with the way those algorithms could embed discriminatory practices in banking or housing offer hope for genuine progress. They can ensure that artificial intelligence brings out the best, rather than the worst, in humanity.

Second, universities can connect these researchers to key external stakeholders in industry, governments, international organizations and NGOs. Interdisciplinary thinking and a willingness to reach out to different actors position universities to develop connections that market institutions cannot.

Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s hub for global engagement, is attempting to take a leadership role in both of these dimensions. In late 2017, it brought together researchers from across the university as part of a new working group on the 4IR. It is designed to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, share knowledge, and highlight the innovative work being done by Penn researchers.

It features faculty from almost every corner of Penn’s 12 schools, demonstrating the way the 4IR touches on so much of modern life. The working group builds on a workshop held at Perry World House in March 2017. It featured researchers from engineering, law and political science, as well as diplomats, defence and intelligence analysts, policymakers and many more interested in the global politics of emerging technologies.

Of course, there is also the classroom. By educating the next generation, universities shape the technologies that tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and engineers develop, and how they think about them. For example, encouraging engineers to take ethics classes - and philosophers to take engineering classes - can build a more educated and well-rounded citizenry for the future, and create more informed public dialogue.

In much the same way as the computer and the internet irrevocably changed the classroom, 4IR technologies and principles will change how students learn. Universities will both catalyze this change, while changing themselves.

Finally, universities can educate our responses to the displacement caused by the 4IR. They have both the capacity and moral imperative to train students and workers in the skillsets needed for this brave new world.

Room for future growth

Universities are significant and important institutions already on the cutting edge of the 4IR. With their dual role to produce public good and educate the next generation, they represent a fulcrum between research and public policy. No other type of institution is as well-positioned to organize conversations across fields as universities.

Universities must embrace this role. They must act more systematically instead of in their current ad hoc ways. Low-hanging fruit in this area includes organizing collaborative research seminars that bring together hard scientists, social scientists and humanities scholars. Another such activity is forming partnerships with industry to incentivize innovation, as the Pennovation Center does.

Internally, universities need to coordinate better. Faculty often find themselves siloed within their individual departments and specific sub-fields. This is caused by several sources, including journals that discourage interdisciplinary publishing; departments that promote faculty based on contributions to one specific field; and physical separation of researchers within the workplace. Considering the cross-cutting and multi-domain nature of the 4IR, universities must break down these barriers and promote synergies between academics, when appropriate.

Finally, the public must understand the consequences of technological change. This will reduce fear and promote informed dialogue. Universities could achieve this by distributing digestible versions of their work through popular platforms, such as the internet, television, newspapers and podcasts.

No single action will be sufficient. But each one will help universities embrace their vital role in shaping the character and consequences of the 4IR.