Posted on 10 05 2019
Has Fourth Industrial Revolution really arrived?
By Younghoon David Kim
Everywhere we turn these days, it seems, people are talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
There is no doubt that developments in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data, and bio-technology are revolutionary, but what exactly do we mean when we say this? The word "revolution," after all, is rather like "war" - overuse has watered down its meaning.
If we apply the term more strictly and ask, what makes an industrial revolution revolutionary, we can see that there is an important component missing in this Fourth Industrial Revolution. I wonder if it's not a revolution-in-waiting, rather like a brand-new racecar that hasn't been fueled up yet.
Here is the argument. The First Industrial Revolution transformed how we made things. People stopped making things by hand and horsepower and started making them instead by marvelous new machines that were powered by water and steam. The Second Industrial Revolution happened when electrification replaced steam and inventors developed even more marvelous new machines to make things.
What happened in both cases was that manufacturers were able to create products of a type and on a scale previously unthought of. The impact on the countries where they operated was transformative.
These two revolutions in a matter of decades began lifting human beings out of poverty on a scale that, with the rise of China and India, is now giving us a vision of a middle-class world. When I was born, my country was one of the poorest in the world.
Now, as a Second Industrial Revolution powerhouse, it is one of the wealthiest. The changes wrought are so complete that it's not until there's a prolonged power failure, when the production lines stop, the traffic lights fail and the candles and blankets come out, that we remember where we came from. And it feels like 500 B.C.
So, what factors lay behind these revolutions? From these first two cases, it is apparent that an industrial revolution that causes fundamental economic change involves the wedding of technology with a new system of energy.
That was how the writer Jeremy Rifkin put it in his 2011 book, "The Third Industrial Revolution; How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World." The new energy regime he had in mind was renewable energy.
But, hold on. When people talk about the Third Industrial Revolution, they are referring to the arrival of the computer. There is no new system of energy. Renewable energy is not all that it is cracked up to be.
Not only has it not replaced those polluting fossil fuels, but alternative energy in fact creates a new range of problems, or, to be more accurate, a different version of the old problems. It, for example, requires storage because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. Storage is by batteries, which require lithium, which must be mined. And the batteries must be disposed of. And so on.
So, I would argue that this so-called third revolution is in technology only. It is a development - and a fantastic one, of course - but conceptually, it is a continuation of the revolution that was fueled by electric power, the Second Industrial Revolution.
Similarly, the changes coming with AI and robots - the Fourth Industrial Revolution - are also technological. There is no new form of energy.
The point I am making here is that the phenomenal technological changes of the computer era are still driven by the energy that characterized the Second Industrial Revolution. They have not been accompanied by new systems of energy. What we refer to as the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions are more actually a deepening and widening of previous revolutionary transformations.
We are still in the Second Industrial Revolution, even if the technology we see now is completely different from that which we saw when it started.
Actually, the next form of energy to fuel the era of AI, is coming, but it is not renewable energy, for the reasons given. What we may expect is a new mode of energy that will provide power that is affordable, accessible and available to all. This could be in fusion or in hydrogen.
One of the most exciting and promising areas for the future of energy is the current research into microbial energy. The concept here is that instead of burning dead fossil material, we derive energy from live microbes. The research in this field is very promising.
Many experts are now working in this post-renewable energy field.
If the energy sector gets really serious about innovation and brings about breakthrough technologies, then it will truly mean revolution in the style of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions.
Those breakthroughs, wedded with biotech, AI and IoT, will characterize the next true Industrial Revolution.