Fourth industrial revolution changes everything - is the world ready?

USA Feb 11, 2020, 01.16 PM(IST) Written By: Wajahat Qazi

File photo Photograph:( Reuters )

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It is about time then that we gird our loins and not merely brace for change but employ it for the benefit of societies and the world, at large.

Like any upheaval, the fourth industrial revolution, which the world is on the cusp of, is upending paradigms, ideas and conventions. Profoundly disruptive like its predecessors, this momentous change of great import is reconfiguring the nature of businesses, firms, industries, markets and even the conventional notion of work. If to paraphrase, Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, the previous industrial revolutions were first about weight and mass, then miniaturisation, the current one is about digits or digitisation. Anything that is not discrete, as in does not have a physical feel, or in the jargon of economists is a ‘non-tradable’ , can be digitised and then, at the click of a mouse, transferred to any part of the world.  

Overlaid by other trends and developments of equal if not even more significant import like Artificial Intelligence(AI) and Robotics, the configuration and settings, to employ computing-related metaphors, of the fourth industrial revolution, are ushering in changes at a dramatic scale and speed that perhaps the world is not yet equipped to deal with. But, deal with these gales of creative destruction the world must if countries and societies that are not to be left as roadkill. While there is an element of technological determinism to these top-down changes, the question is: how can societies cope up?

The short answer is adaptation and integration. That is, the technological tsunami or juggernaut that is in its infancy yet must not be resisted. Instead, it must be incorporated and integrated into the very fabric of societies and their concomitants like businesses, firms, industries and markets. Admittedly, the nature of this adaptation will neither be easy nor seamless and is likely to cause frisson and friction within societies altering radically not only the nature and patterns of employment, work, processes, products and services but also the bases of social and economic organisation. This disruption, if it is to contribute to social welfare and progress needs to be managed. The question is how?

For both developing and developed societies, the changes induced by the Fourth Industrial Revolution present challenges and opportunities. In fact, it may be that the traditional North-South divide may have evaporated now. We are then in it together. While this is the major silver lining of the ongoing great disruption, other salubrious themes that stand out are that, for developing countries, 21st-century technologies render it eminently possible to ‘leap frog’ the process of catch up. For the developed world, these technologies make it possible to ‘re-industrialise’ albeit in a different permutation and combination.  

Key here, to repeat, is adaptation and integration(or adaptation). An example might suffice to illustrate the point here. It is now generally held (and in some contexts is already happening), the relatively lesser component of work and processes are already being automated. It is work, processes and so on at the other end of the spectrum-the kind that requires a more sophisticated skillset- that is being done and conducted by humans. If this is the bellwether and the trend for the future, then the implications are pretty much obvious: these hark to integrating work done by humans and machines and thereby put a premium on skills and skill development that speaks to the needs of the times. In this schemata then, societies need to reorient themselves to a new social contract where perhaps there is no such thing as employment and work in the conventional sense and there as is now a conventional view, is a premium or even a demand for lifelong learning.  

This, among other things, means that human capital and its vigorous development should enter the lexicon of both policymakers and businesses.

Machines and humans, right from the spinning jenny to robots now have long interacted and created a basis for social and economic progress. Each time a new invention and discovery were made in the economic history of mankind, it created angst and competing visions of both Utopia and dystopia. The prosaic reality, albeit in hindsight, is that humans adapted and adjusted and none of these competing visions actually to came to pass, even though, mankind has generally progressed. This time is no different. This assertion, however, needs a qualifier: the fourth industrial revolution’s defining characteristic is the staggering speed, scope and scale of change where time is a critical resource. It is about time then that we gird our loins and not merely brace for change but employ it for the benefit of societies and the world, at large.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 

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.