Over the next four days 2,500 people including 40 heads of state, 14 Nobel Laureates and invited business leaders (eager to part with $27k for the honour) are attempting to, ‘Master the 4th Industrial Revolution’ at the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The recent market volatility suggests, perhaps, that ‘Mastering’ is too optimistic and too flattering a choice of words; surviving may be more suitable. Nevertheless those attending the conference will be discussing resolutions to ongoing crises whilst simultaneously receiving pointers on what else they should be worrying about.
The theme for this year’s highbrow powwow encapsulates how - given the complex and manifold technological advances of late - many are increasingly uncertain about what our world could look like in the coming decades. The pace of this revolution is a concern for governments hoping to avoid an unemployment and inequality dilemma, as well as for businesses fretful of getting blindsided. Every country, industry and company is at risk of becoming undercut, superseded or defunct by new businesses shaped by still budding or yet unseen technologies. Recently the ‘disruption’ of whole industries has been worryingly yet usefully exemplified by small startups like Uber and Airbnb (and also by big firms like Google and Apple).
Fears of a ‘Cyberdyne’ (literally ‘computer-power’) revolution/apocalypse may haunt those familiar with the advancements of WolframAlpha, IBM’s Watson and Google’s Deepmind; finding similarities between them and ‘Skynet’ - the fictitious A.I. villain from the ‘Terminator’ films (… or indeed HAL 9000, Shodan, GLaDOS, VIKI, Red Queen… or the many other ominous A.I. imaginings of recent writers). However the major concern isn’t the rule of robots over people but the power of the rich over the poor. Automation of knowledge industries (in addition to further automation in manufacturing) could unsettle large parts of the workforce that were previously impervious to, or benefitted from, technological revolutions.
The preceding mechanical (1770s), mass production (1870s) and electronics (1970s) revolutions that shaped much of our daily lives could rapidly be overshadowed by the anticipated cyber-physical awakening. The development of automation and so called ‘artificial intelligence’ could harness the acres of server rooms filled with big and ever increasing data about anything and everything. If this is indeed another industrial revolution, it will certainly bring about useful advancements and lifestyle enhancing technologies. But, at least in the transition, it could also leave crowds of the working population obsolete whilst the rich owners of these newly automated industries extend their inequity. But the tendency for the wealthy (people and countries) to harness their assets and best take advantage of new innovations is nothing new.