4ir

The concept of a fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has gained momentum over the last few years. Coined by Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), it refers to a future where the boundaries between the physical, digital and even biological worlds blur, as a stream of technological advances transform the way we work and live.

On the one hand, an explosion of data from online systems and the Internet of Things (IoT) enables new insights, new services and new products. To make sense of it, we’ll be helped by a new wave of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, using machine learning and deep learning strategies to analyse the data and transform it into ideas and actions. The same technologies will also be busy in the workplace, providing advice, optimising processes and automating repetitive tasks. This could potentially free our time to make more of our human creativity, to the benefit and profit of all.

Meanwhile, new additive manufacturing techniques will revolutionise everything from manufacturing industry to construction to healthcare, ensuring that a product designed in the UK could be printed by a local plant on a different continent, almost instantly and on-demand. Industrial processes, logistics and supply chains could all be transformed. What’s more, advances in robotics, material sciences and biotechnology, not to mention virtual reality and quantum computing, could accelerate human progress even more. Throw in ubiquitous wireless data access and new forms of human-machine interface, and the very notion of what it means to be human could change.

The fourth industrial revolution is already here

When will this happen? In some ways, it’s happening already. IoT devices are now a reality in many businesses, factories and homes. Businesses are already using machine learning and deep learning to make sense of streams of data, and those streams are growing larger year by year. IT departments are looking at the benefits of self-service delivery and automation, while AI capabilities are already embedded – and accessible – through ready-made platforms such as Salesforce Einstein. The future is happening while we watch.

There’s good reason to be excited about this new ‘age of intelligence’. Accenture has estimated that the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) alone could add $14.2 trillion to the world economy over the next 15 years, while the AI market is expected to be worth nearly $200 billion by 2025. Analysts at McKinsey believe that the economic impact of additive manufacturing could be worth $200 to $250 billion by 2025. There’s scope for extraordinary cost-savings and efficiencies, and for companies to develop even closer relationships with their customers through data. 4IR could enable more energy-efficient homes and workplaces, while manufacturers can build and sell products while consuming fewer resources and producing less waste. With help from AI, we may make progress across some of today’s biggest technological and scientific challenges, while biotechnology and 3D-printed organs and body parts could literally save lives.

4IR fears – and what it means for CIOs

Yet there are also fears around 4IR; that privacy will go out of the window, that it will exacerbate existing gaps between rich and poor, and that automation could cost jobs. And as Nicholas Davis of the World Economic Forum and Simon Mulcahy, chief innovation officer for Salesforce wrote in an article last September, there are real concerns that growing distrust of big tech. companies is making customers uncomfortable about how they share their data. ‘This increasing distrust is a serious problem’ they note, ‘because data fuels many of the new technologies underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution.’

What does this all mean for CIOs? Firstly, preparation. If you haven’t already thought about how 4IR technologies might change your business, it’s time to start. Yet it’s also a time to think about people. How can you respect and protect the privacy of your customers? How can you train teams to work with this new technology, or reskill workers affected by automation to fill different roles? What can you do with the time and resources 4IR technologies free up? As Davis and Mulcahy put it, 4IR will require businesses to be “open and honest with customers… recognizing that their relationship must be built on mutual benefit and trust.’ Arguably, this goes for their employees just as much.