The Fourth Industrial Revolution
According to Greek mythology, humans were granted the flame of knowledge by the titan Prometheus. No matter where our natural knowledge and curiosity comes from, there’s no denying that we’ve not stopped using it across our evolution.
Not only do we perfect and refine industry through the evolution of technology, but we also use the new resources we find to create new and better technology. Industry as a whole has benefited from these qualitative developments, some of which have been so significant and so ingrained in the time period they happened that they are considered “industrial revolutions”.
When I first heard the term “The 4th industrial revolution” and how it is being driven, in part, by AI, I realised I couldn’t really define it, or for that matter, when or what the other 3 Industrial Revolutions were. So I looked into the history of industry and at the key industrial revolutions of our time, as well as the fourth revolution that is happening right now.
The First Industrial Revolution
The first industrial revolution, what most people mean when they say “industrial revolution”, happened between the end of the 18th century and start of the 19th century. It was brought about by the emergence of mechanisation. Machines were introduced that could perform agricultural tasks more efficiently than humans, and it changed the very foundations of the global economy.
The extraction of coal from the ground and the creation of steam power brought about a new energy source that sped up all processes through the development of the railroad and the expenditure of economic, material, and human exchanges. Advancements in forging and metallurgy also led to the developments of factories and the beginnings of mass production.
The textile industry was the first to use modern production methods, making clothing cheaper for the masses, having a huge impact on the day-to-lives of people.
The Second Industrial Revolution
The second industrial revolution came around a century later, on the cusp of the 19th century. Technological advancements brought about new forms of energy in gas, oil, and electricity. The combustion engine was developed to use these new resources to their full potential.
On top of this, the steel industry started to grow and develop with the increased need for steel. Chemical synthesis was developed and the first synthetic fabrics, fertilisers, and dyes were made. Communication was revolutionised thanks to the invention of the telegraph and telephone.
Society became more mobile through the automobile and the development of aircraft at the turn of the 20th century. These inventions were all made possible by focusing research efforts and capital on an industrial and economic model based on the idea of “large factories” and the organised models of production created by Ford and Taylor.
The Third Industrial Revolution
The third industrial revolution came during the second half of the 20th century. It was brought about thanks to the emergence of another new kind of power source that was far more powerful than anything before; nuclear power.
The third industrial revolution also saw the development of electronics – with the microprocessor and transistor being developed at the time – and it also saw a rise in computer and telecommunications. These technologies paved the way for biotechnology and space research. As far as industry is concerned, the third revolution brought about great production automation thanks to the development of automatons – programmable logic controllers/PLCs – and robots.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
The first industrial revolution involved mechanising production with water and steam. The second involved the development of mass production through electric energy. The third saw the use of information technology and electronics to automate production. Now we are in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution that builds upon the progress of the third and a digital revolution that has been going on since the middle of the 20th century.
The phrase 'The 4th Industrial Revolution' was first coined at the 2015 World Economic forum. The fourth revolution is characterised by merging technologies that broach the borders between biological, digital, and physical to disrupt every industry across the world. The depth of these changes, and the incredible extent of them, is a sign that everything we know about management, production, and governance is going to change.
Both the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions are reducing costs while increasing efficiency in many aspects of our lives. Like the preceding revolutions, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to improve the quality of life and raise global income levels around the world.
However, many people are fearful that their income and those of their children will stagnate and the job market will shrink. This is a natural and understandable emotional reaction despite history proving that the economic and technological developments of the previous Industrial Revolutions brought significant social changes and improved standards of living for most people. Working conditions for the working class, however, were tragic.
Industrialisation resulted in the phenomenon of urbanisation, as a growing number of people moved to urban centres in search of employment and a better life. The fourth industrial revolution looks set to reverse this need as remote working, with information at our fingertips and the ability to communicate around the world instantaneously. We need to ensure the potential benefits that AI has to offer in the fields of medicine, farming, energy efficiency and customer service while mitigating against the risk that rapid technological changes present.