Author:Philbeck, Thomas

Framing the Idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In January 2016, World Economic Forum Founder and Executive Chairman, Klaus Schwab, published a book titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Since then, the term "Fourth Industrial Revolution" (4IR) has been used to frame and analyze the impact of emerging technologies on nearly the entire gamut of human development in the early 21st century, from evolving social norms and national political attitudes to economic development and international relations.

The concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution affirms that technological change is a driver of transformation relevant to all industries and parts of society. Furthermore, it highlights the idea that, at certain stages in history, sets of technologies emerge and combine in ways that have impacts far beyond incremental increases in efficiency. Industrial revolutions are revolutions in the systems that surround us, step changes in the complex interplay between humans and technology, and transformations that result in new ways of perceiving, acting, and being.

The idea of 4IR is often taken to be a synonym of "Industry 4.0," an initiative that emerged in Germany between 2011 and 2015, focusing on the application of digital technologies to manufacturing. (i) These two terms are not unrelated, but they describe different things. Industry 4.0 is an important component within the larger framing of 4IR with its narrower, vital focus on the relationship between digitization, organizational transformation, and productivity enhancement in manufacturing and production systems.

Fundamentally, 4IR represents a series of significant shifts in the way that economic, political, and social value is being created, exchanged, and distributed. These shifts in values are intimately related to the emergence of new technologies that span the digital, physical, and biological worlds, and they are most powerful when they combine and reinforce one another. In the contemporary technological culture that is spreading across the globe, 4IR represents what Sheila Jasanoff would term a "sociotechnological imaginary." (1) The concept focuses attention on the present by invoking society's experiences of the past and its visions of potential futures. By drawing on language linked to both economic history and political change, 4IR highlights the importance of ongoing and prospective changes in markets, information flows, employment trends, environmental outcomes, and shifts in the balance of global power.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution Versus the Digital Revolution

The ordinal prefix "fourth" is important because this revolution is intended to drive strategic dialogue beyond the digital revolution, which has been described by others as a transition from an industrial to an information age, or more clearly identified as the Third Industrial Revolution predicated upon digital information technologies. (2,3) The Fourth Industrial Revolution builds upon the rapid exchange of information made possible by the data-centric foundations of the Third Industrial Revolution's digital technologies, which in turn relied on the electricity and telecommunication systems at the heart of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The layering of dependencies matters because it shows that 4IR is best suited to examining technologies and systems that take the digital world for granted. Today, the combination of powerful machine-learning algorithms, low-cost sensors, and advanced actuators are allowing technologies to be seamlessly embedded into our physical environment. Furthermore, when combined with advanced imaging, signal processing, and gene-editing approaches, they have the potential to influence our physiological condition and cognitive faculties. Digital technologies are part of the fabric of daily life and, as they give rise...

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