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article imageReview: New book outlines the 'fourth industrial revolution' Special

By Tim Sandle     Sep 24, 2017 in Technology
London - A new book by Klaus Schwab looks at the 'fourth industrial revolution', taken as the age of connected devices. The book considers the opportunities and challenges that await human society as this era unfolds.
Klaus Schwab is well-versed in technological and economic trends, being the founder of the World Economic Forum. His new book "The Fourth Industrial Revolution' is aimed at business leaders and those interested in the way society is unfolding. The book aims to guide interested parties through this new era of "exponentially disruptive change."
Whether we are or are not entering a 'fourth industrial revolution' is a subject hotly debated from technologists to sociologists, from business executives to politicians. The possibility is central to Schwab's book. In terms of what an industrial revolution is, the first and second are generally accepted by historians. The first industrial revolution was the age of steam and the second was the advent of electricity. The third industrial revolution is widely considered to be the birth of the computer age (the main point of debate is when this started).
The fourth industrial revolution is said to be the era that we are in now, a time and space of wearable devices, 3D printing, machine intelligence, and biotechnology, especially gene editing; add to this there is artificial intelligence, networked and connected devices (as with the Internet of Things), and the associated changes to the way businesses and consumers interact. Some commentators see this as an era; to others it is a merely an extension of the the third industrial revolution - doing smarter things with computers. For Schwab, we have entered a new, conceptually different era. This era, he writes, might lead to a dystopia where we are slave to the machine or, more likely in the author's opinion, a "new cultural renaissance" - provided society and the economy adapts.
The key message in the book, for businesses and those thinking of entering the business world (such as, developing a start-up) is that a different approach is needed. For established sectors, this may require the development of "new businesses in adjacent segments"; whereas for start-up, what is required, is "identifying shifting pockets of value in existing sectors." For the more successful this entails ignoring geographical boundaries for "digital technology knows no borders" (a fine statement, although the author points out where this isn't always the case, as with Facebook and Google adapting their policies according to the directives of the Chinese government).
While the book if forward thinking, it pays little attention to those who might be left behind. Furthermore, the descriptions of some companies, like Taskrabbit and Uber, as successful "human cloud platforms" might be correct for the executives, but there is no mention of the precarious forms of employment, coupled with low wages, that those working for such companies face. The main criticism is the book is a little overtly-Utopian, focusing on the business opportunities more than the social effects. The author does, nevertheless, raise multiple challenges such as the potential threat from artificial intelligence (it's either going to be super-useful or pose an "existential threat to humanity"). The same with biotechnology and gene editing (a cure-all for genetic diseases or a tool for creating bio-inequality).
Despite the downplaying of the social upheaval, for anyone wishing to gain a grasp of what digital disruption is all about; to sign-post where many businesses need to head; and gain an understanding of the technologies that are needed, this book provides an easy to read snapshot within its 192 pages. In short, it's a call to adapt.
More about fourth industrial revolution, Books, Technology, Change
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