The 4th industrial revolution is real but so too is an alternate reality

NEW DELHI Sep 08, 2020, 12.03 PM(IST) Written By: Wajahat Qazi

File photo Photograph:( Reuters )

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Robots will increasingly do the work humans do and Artificial Intelligence will do the same.

Be it the world of work, education, the economy and even politics, the world is on the cusp of a fundamental revolution. What undergirds this revolution is technology or more accurately, the Information Communication Technologies (ICT’s which are fundamentally reshaping how we view the world. To employ a cliché, what used to be sci-fi only a few decades ago is now a reality.

This is prompting many to suggest that we are in the midst of a 4th Industrial Revolution. While this formulation is in the nature of a condition – that is, it is happening and is a process that is denoueing, it has not entirely assumed the form that could bear the nomenclature of the 4th Industrial Revolution yet. But something fundamental is happening.

Consider work. While remote working was an option for some firms and work was broken down into discrete units, and distributed to many parts of the world (read outsourcing), the Covid 19 pandemic has intensified the adoption of and integration of technology into workflows and processes. The pandemic, at some point in time, will go way but what will not is the adoption of work-related processes determined by technology. The same would hold true for education.

In the domain of manufacturing and the ‘real economy,’ the Internet of Things (IoT) will further embed technology into machines, gadgets and devices taking the world further into a tech determined place where ‘devices speak’ and so on.  Robots will increasingly do the work humans do and Artificial Intelligence will do the same.

 All this will have profound political implications. In and between the worlds of states, while geopolitical competition will remain the overarching reality, the competition for power and the locus of power will be determined by access to and control over technology. (The ruckus over Huawei emblematizes this point and is perhaps in the nature of the tip of the proverbial iceberg).

Competition over and about technology, its access, dissemination and distribution will not only determine issues of war and peace but also development and poverty. Poorer nations, resource and capital starved can leap frog the development process and while catch up will be difficult, contingent as it will be  on access to technology , speed of innovation  and the network effects thereof, but relative economic convergence might be possible.

Capital flows might also become contingent on the level and sophistication of a given country’s technology and its adoption. Here countries, like companies, might become brands or, put more emphasis on branding, of course with stuff to show for it.

All in all than, say within a timespan of a few decades, the world will look very different. If a metaphor might be employed and applied here, the world- its politics, economics, industry and so on- will be ‘Amazonized’ ( the reference here is to the company Amazon). But the question is: will it be a peaceful, conflict less, frictionless world? Or, in other more compelling and evocative worlds, will there ensure a dystopia or a Utopia?

These are strong words and compelling visions that do not actually bear relation to the human condition. There has not been a utopia nor a dystopia in worldly terms. The reality always has been messy, complicated and complex. But, before far reaching changes of a radical nature, if the world is prepared, future conditions might not actually work to the detriment of mankind. In the context of the contemporary world, and the radical changes unleashed by technology, it then would make sense to understand the nature and direction of change and guide it, to the extent can be, for good.

A digression is called for here. The guiding of the direction of change is an imperative and goes to the heart of modernity, if by that is meant mankind’s mastery over the natural world. If humankind is to remain autonomous, then it is important that control is not ceded entirely to machines. This is not an allusion to some tech dystopia where machines go mad and run the world but to inject sobriety, proportion and balance into the emerging world, one where technology is an evident reality but it must be conjoined to but ultimately serve humankind.

The question is how?

This is a difficult question that, however, must be answered. If it is not and if say, for example, industry is automated entirely, if blue collar work and even white collar one disappears, there will be so many humans and many machines with the latter becoming the dominant reality. Against the backdrop of an increasing world population, with a social division of labor, and only a few tasks being open to be performed by humans, what will they do? Who will produce for whom? But more importantly, and both prosaically and fundamentally, what will they eat?

The answer lies in enabling a transition to a world where there is balance and equipoise between man and machine and where is equity. If the issue is glossed over and tech determinism allowed to run its logical course without the balance of human interventions, then a political revolution that will consume, obscure and overwhelm the 4th industrial revolution is not far off. The time for redress, equipoise and proportion is now.

Wajahat Qazi

Wajahat Qazi is particularly interested in politics, global security and political economy. He is a wanderer and fancies himself to be a wannabe writer.