For much of the recent past, the rise and rise of new technologies has seemed inexorable, snowballing along under its own momentum, and it has come to define a new era, the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The breakneck pace of this new era, with its accompanying life-changing technologies, has been disruptive, raising a range of ethical questions – about genetics, robots, algorithms – and what it means to be human. Like lemmings, we, too, have been swept along, fuelled by a blind faith in this relentless march of progress.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, the global health crisis that has had an impact on all our lives, some more than others. Not only has it exposed widespread disillusionment and discontent but also a lack of trust in systems that proved inadequate in coping with the emergency.
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As a testament to the shifting zeitgeist, the early darlings of the digital revolution – social media – once seen as bastions of cohesion and cross-cultural understanding, are now demonized as powerful monopolies driving “internet addiction”, cyber bullying and even undermining democracy itself.
Through this dark lens, digital life has become all-consuming, characterized by pervasiveness, personalization and permanence, in an eerie echo of the learned helplessness triad developed by the American psychologist Martin Seligman.
At the same time, the pandemic has shed light on how far humanity has come; without new technologies, things could have been much worse. Statistics bear this out: deaths from COVID-19 currently account for less than 0.04% of the world’s population, compared with a 1%-6% global mortality for the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 (which equates to approximately 17-50 million people) and an estimated 30%-40% for the Black Death of the 1300s (approximately 50-200 million people). It’s a reminder that progress has its privileges.
Reflect and reorient
There have been silver linings. Modern healthcare systems have been put under immense strain and pressure but, by and large, they have been up to the challenge, while the internet, e-commerce and rapid adoption of work-from-home tools have kept economies sputtering along. Most significantly, the oft-maligned R&D functions of biotech and big pharma companies have produced sophisticated vaccines in record time.
With large proportions of the world’s population confined to their homes in stop-start lockdowns, several years’ worth of digital transformation has taken place over a matter of months – and almost all for the better. Radical changes of such consequence have occurred that some pundits have referred to a “before coronavirus” (BC) and “after coronavirus” (AC) era.
So, for its trauma and convulsive change, the year 2020 gives humanity a chance to reflect and reorient to ensure we are running in the right direction. Indeed, we have a rare opportunity to shape what is to come – to reimagine our technological wherewithal and close gaping social and digital divides while we’re at it.
The dawn of a revolution
Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum and author of The Fourth Industrial Revolution, said: “COVID-19 has accelerated our transition into the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have to make sure that the new technologies in the digital, biological and physical world remain human-centred and serve society as a whole, providing everyone with fair access.”
When it was published in 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution made the case that “Technology and digitization will revolutionize everything … [and] major technological innovations are on the brink of fuelling momentous change throughout the world.” The ensuing years have borne this out, characterized by a blur of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing and a fusion of many other technologies.
For all the buzz and breathless excitement about machine intelligence, it is actually a quiet “bottom-up” revolution, driven by engineers and computer scientists solving real problems, underpinned by a deluge of data that is now well beyond “big”. As the number of applications grows exponentially, AI is fast approaching omniscience. In a recent global survey conducted by PwC, three in five (63%) chief executives said they believe that AI will have a larger impact than the internet.
And this is just the cool stuff. Much more transformational is what is happening behind the scenes. Workhorses like robotic process automation (RPA), applied AI and data science are transforming industries with staggering speed, including law, banking, finance, manufacturing, customer service. Bain and Company estimates that the number of companies implementing RPA will more than double over the next two years.
When hyper means vulnerable
This torrent of technological change has led commentators to attach the prefix “hyper-” for special emphasis: the world is hyper-connected, supply chains are hyper-optimized, processes are hyper-specialized and broadband is hyper-fast. However, the widespread sacrifice of resilience at the altar of the twin gods of speed and efficiency has left us more vulnerable to shocks. The COVID-19 maelstrom, which quietly circled for several months, engulfed the world in March with staggering speed and ferocity.
The World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (opened in 2017) estimates that total internet usage surged by as much as 70% as societies locked down during the pandemic. The speed of the transformation is unprecedented, sweeping through even the most technologically-resistant industries, all types of business and all countries.
The new reality
Some claim that an early casualty of COVID-19 was “business as usual”, while others point to the world entering a “new normal”. Either way, it is clear that the aftershocks will continue to resonate for years.
How governments and other stakeholders approach the governance of in the aftermath will play an important role in “resetting” society, the economy and the business environment. Working together, the public and private sectors have the opportunity to nurture the development of new technologies while mitigating the risks of unethical or malicious uses.
Given its position spearheading the narrative about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Forum offers a platform to help stakeholders see the opportunities and address the critical challenges and issues of this new era.
Health and well-being
In the post-pandemic world, heightened awareness of health and well-being can help usher in a much-needed golden era of personalized healthcare. The combination of AI, data from wearable tech and mobile apps connected by the IoT will produce new insights, complemented by novel clinical trials and molecular information generated from next-generation sequencing, but ethical considerations will need careful management. The Forum’s Managing Epidemics with Consumer Wearables project seeks to establish an ethical approach for those with a stake in public health, helping them to respond to pandemics with the aid of insights derived from consumer wearable devices.
In addition, new biotechnology techniques using RNA and DNA platforms make it possible to develop vaccines faster than ever, which may, in turn, help with the development of new bioengineered treatments. The confluence of innovations in health and medical technologies is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. The result will be integrated tools to improve our own well-being, backed by personalized information relating to the toxicity of food we consume, how we can improve diet, sleep, exercise and control our social media consumption.
AI and growth
With social distancing measures driving the imperative to innovate, we have finally crossed the Rubicon when it comes to AI and advanced analytics. Recent research by Accenture shows that AI holds the promise of doubling annual economic growth rates by 2035 (corresponding to $14 trillion in economic value).
It will however, fall short of this potential if used responsibly. To accelerate the adoption of inclusive, transparent and trusted artificial intelligence globally, the Forum has launched the Global AI Action Alliance (GAIA), which will focus on a range of issues from educating government on AI risks and identifying and reducing bias in AI systems to using AI to accelerate progress on Sustainable Development Goals.
To help leaders understand and harness the full value of ethically designed AI tools, the World Economic Forum has published the AI Toolkit for Boards of Directors, which is designed to help directors understand and meet their responsibilities with regard to this transformational technology.
In addition, booming investment in tech infrastructure in the second half of 2020 has speeded up the roll-out of 5G, the first mobile network with almost unlimited scale. Industry analysts from IHS Markit estimate that the 5G global value chain alone will create $13.2 trillion in global economic value by 2035, supporting 22.3 million jobs. The 5G Global Accelerator is driving a sustainable transition to this next generation of mobile networks to respond and recover from the crisis and build more resilient societies.
For company and non-profit leaders seeking digital transformation at scale, the Forum’s Global Lighthouse Network, showcases dozens of success stories where manufacturers have successfully used Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to transform factories, value chains and business models, reaping compelling financial and operational returns.
Trust is imperative, but in these challenging times it has been sorely undermined. The Forum is seeking to bolster trust in different areas. The Global AI Action Alliance has been launched in a move to make AI trusted, transparent and inclusive. This community is closely aligned with the Data for Common Purpose Initiative (DCPI), which has been set up to ensure that AI governance reflects best practices in data governance and is interoperable globally and across industry sectors.
Hand-in-hand with trust comes ethics and governance. The Forum is looking at the full gambit from AI to digital content. Its Platform for Shaping the Future of Media, Entertainment and Sport has created the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM). Through this, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, in collaboration with marketers and agencies through the GARM have agreed to adopt a common framework for defining harmful content that is inappropriate for advertising, and to collaborate with a view to monitoring industry efforts to improve in this critical area. At a wider industry level, the Forum is pursuing the Advancing Global Digital Content Safety initiative, which seeks to explore solutions to advance industry and regulatory progress in tackling the spread of harmful content online.
As technology impacts society, the need for local expertise, participatory approaches and integrated response from civil society – including humanitarian, development, advocacy, human rights and others – has become increasingly apparent. To address this, the Forum has created the Partnering with Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution Initiative, which seeks to improve social justice through collective action and systems change, with a focus on the design, deployment, use and governance of technology.
The pandemic has dramatically increased the dependency of economies and societies on digital technology, introducing new risks and governance challenges in areas such as cybersecurity and privacy. With most people working remotely, cyberattacks and data fraud rank third among the greatest concerns of business leaders, as reported in the COVID-19 Risks Outlook report of May 2020.
The World Economic Forum's Centre for Cybersecurity is leading the global response to address systemic cybersecurity challenges and improve digital trust. Among its various projects, the Centre has been working with the University of Oxford and community of more than 150 global experts to put forward specific strategic interventions, all aimed at helping vaccinate organizations against a cyber pandemic and cybercrime.
Data for Good
Technological development should not be simply driven by what’s possible – it should be directed in support of societal goals. Government and business share an obligation to ensure that the twin revolutions in digitization and data are a force for good.
We can look up for hope; satellite images can support industrial growth, environmental protection, healthcare and education. Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa), a continental-scale data infrastructure for all of Africa, democratizes the capacity to process and analyse satellite data – producing new insights on water scarcity, land use and food security.
More broadly, big(ger) data from personal, commercial and government sources has the potential to address various challenges related to the Sustainable Development Goals. For instance, the Humanitarian and Resilience Investing Initiative aims to fill critical gaps in the available data that are preventing investors from accessing more humanitarian and resilience investing (HRI) opportunities.
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing gaps and inequalities, notably almost half of the global population remain offline and broadband services are too expensive for 50% of the population in developed countries. These “connectivity deserts” hamper access to health, education and economic inclusion. In a bid to improve access to the digital economy, during The Davos Agenda, the Forum launched the Essential Digital Infrastructure and Services Network, or EDISON Alliance, tasked with working to accelerate digital inclusion
Meanwhile, in metropolises around the globe, which account for nearly two-thirds of CO2 emissions, smart energy infrastructure connected through data and digitalization is central to transitioning to “net zero” cities.
These initiatives – among many others that could be profiled – are truly unlocking the hidden value in data.
A new era
The world will likely never return to the pre-pandemic past, but as the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution continue to disrupt our lives – killing some jobs, creating new ones, ushering in profound social change, reshaping our cities – it is good to remember that history is on our side; previous pandemics have led to a renaissance in creativity. With the right regulations and bold ideas and reforms, a new era for human-centred innovation could emerge.
Perhaps the last word should go to the lemmings. In a classic cartoon captioned “Lemming nightmares”, cartoonist Bill Whitehead presents one timid lemming verbalizing his dark dream to another: “I just kept running and running and running … and there was never a cliff!”
A collection of initiatives relevant to the day has been created for those with access to the Forum’s online tool, TopLink.