It’s being widely assumed that the mobile internet, automation and AI are the latest “revolutions” that follow on the first three – coal and steam; electricity and the automobile; and computing.
So, is this the 4th industrial revolution? If so, we’re just at the beginning of that era, with changes during the past decade that were brought about by the smartphone, the Internet of Things, and cloud computing. A recent WSJ article proclaims that we’re either at the end of work as we know it or entering a profound transformation of what jobs humans will do in the future. The explosion of smart phones has created a need for the development of new software, from apps to artificial intelligence, as well as new platforms (cloud computing and blockchain), plus new networks (first 4G and now 5G) and an array of components that were extraordinarily expensive (cameras and sensors) – ref WSJ. The growth of the smartphone and cloud areas has brought automation to a segment of the economy that has traditionally avoided impact – the knowledge workers. In this instance, however, it is less about replacing workers and more about enhancing their abilities by automating tasks. The fastest-growing employment sectors and the biggest skill gaps are currently in technology and that will likely remain so for many years. The new economy doesn’t “just require warm bodies, it also requires a great deal of infrastructure that is typically invisible in our daily lives,” (ref WSJ. For example, thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable and hundreds of thousands of cell towers. Thus, when you combine mobile, the cloud and automation with commerce, you get a transformation of how we distribute goods of every sort, which in turn results in a physical transformation of retail and the transfer of many of those jobs into warehouses. The most visible impact of the rise of ever-more automation is that employment in manufacturing and the skilled trades has dropped even as total productivity in the U.S. and other developed countries has increased. The growing population of working industrial robots will fairly soon be joined by the effects of autonomous vehicles. Autonomy is a broad technology, giving robots the ability to navigate on their own, safely, in the presence of humans. It is speculated that this could have a multiplier effect on the number of robots engaged in tasks both mundane and extraordinary. Artificial intelligence will be a central ingredient of these new abilities – current AI doesn’t think like humans do, but just takes data and finds the inherent patterns. Future machine learning will do much more. The fourth industrial revolution will rely, however, on talented humans to bring it all to fruition – the need in the U.S. is to be able to both train and attract these talented individuals for a reliable future.