Every day we read about the Fifth Industrial Revolution. At first glance, it just seems like a new, improved version of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The media refer to it so frequently, that we all assume we know what it is and we never really pin down what it is and how it affects us.

The term Industrial Revolution was used by the 19th century economic historian Arnold Toynbee to describe Britain’s economic development from 1760 to 1840.

Let’s start with what we mean by Industrial Revolutions. An industrial revolution has two components. The first is the creation of new technology – for example, the invention of the steam engine. The second is a change in production brought about by the technology – for example, steam-driven weaving looms. Each time a new technology is created, the manufacturing [making] process ratchets up a notch. As the revolutions become more complicated, multiple new technologies are discovered, and the process accelerates.

The table below shows the sequence of the five industrial revolutions. You will see how each revolution sets the scene for the next one. Note also the time period of each revolution.

The sequence of the five industrial revolutions

The first revolution mechanised the textile industry. The second industrial revolution gave us the assembly line, high volume industrial production and high mass consumption. The third allowed information to be captured in digital format and to be cost-effectively transformed, manipulated and transmitted. The fourth industrial revolution has provided us with robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality. There were nearly two centuries between the first and second industrial revolutions.

Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, coined the term “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” at the WEF meeting in Davos in 2016.

Most of us reading this article will have experienced the last three industrial revolutions in our lifetime – with more to come!

Along the way, we picked up globalisation, climate change, environmental degradation and multinational conglomerates with annual revenues larger than the GDP of many countries. More efficient production has meant increased pollution, reckless consumption of non-renewable resources, and ever-improving quarterly profit statements.

The Fifth Industrial Revolution (5IR) can be summarised as the combination of humans and machines in the workplace. But this is vastly oversimplified and does not even begin to explain the magnitude and complexity of the change.

Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce sees it this way: “I see a crisis of trust in technology,” he told the World Economic Forum. “in the Fifth Industrial Revolution, we’re going to have to have… a chief ethical and humane use officer. Are we using these technologies for the good of the world? You can’t do business in the Fourth Industrial Revolution without the trust of your employees and your customers and partners.”

The third and fourth revolutions were hard on humans and hard on the environment. Previous generations had to adapt their lifestyle to what the machines could do. The Fifth Industrial Revolution is different. Human beings are now front and centre in the production process.

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Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the changes that are becoming commonplace in the Fifth Industrial Revolution

  • Many more people will regularly work remotely.
  • Menial administration will be performed by machines.
  • Implantable technologies for health and other purposes will become widespread, leading to a healthier, longer-living population.
  • 3D printing will become more and more prevalent.
  • Chatbots will become a routine part of the customer experience.

Questions that have still to be fully answered include:

  • How will white-collar jobs change? Will they disappear completely, how will workers have to reconfigure their roles as routine work becomes automated?
  • How will we, as a society, respond to this? Values, institutions, a sense of identity.
  • Which countries will be affected the most? North / South
  • What will happen in countries with low internet adoption? Southern Africa.
  • What will happen to the costs of goods and services?
  • How will organisations build new trust relationships and psychological work contracts, How will all of us unlearn old habits and gear up for this new milieu?

A negative way of looking at this is to complain that we are rendered obsolete by the very machines we create. Robots will ultimately become smarter than humans and then there’s no stopping them. They will take over the world, and we will be left to do nothing – we will become redundant.

The positive way of looking at this is to appreciate how AI and robotics significantly alter how we work, play and live by replacing repetitive and highly complex tasks and assisting us with decision-making. Less drudgery at work and more time to spend on important things.

If we look at the previous revolutions, they have each brought some dislocation, but they have improved the quality of life for all. We have no reason to suspect that the Fifth Industrial Revolution will be different.

The World Economic Forum produced the “Future of Jobs Report” in 2018.

The graph below depicts their view on the adoption on 5IR technologies.

Technologies by proportion of companies likely to adopt them by 2022 [projected]
Technologies by proportion of companies likely to adopt them by 2022 [projected]

And as the world of work changes, the table below depicts how this will affect existing jobs, and create new ones.

Examples of stable, new and redundant roles, all industries
Examples of stable, new and redundant roles, all industries

Look at your own organisation and ponder on the effects on you and your colleagues around you. Look at the new roles – see which of those roles is a natural career progression for you.

Let’s explore further and consider the graph below and the effect on the workforce:

Projected (2022) effects on the workforce of current growth strategy, by proportion of companies
Projected (2022) effects on the workforce of current growth strategy, by proportion of companies

Changes to the value chain are right at the top, and we will briefly touch on this later in this conversation. What are the implications of all of this:

It is highly probable that you and I will work with robots and smart machines. The Internet of Things (IoT) and big data will provide information and take decisions that will help us work better and faster. This change had started in the 4IR, but it will become more commonplace as we move into the future.

This does not, however, mean that human beings become redundant. There will always be a role for humans, but it will demand significant changes from us. Think of the First Industrial Revolution, where a large number of people moved from an agricultural setting to having to work in factories where they had to set and operate machines. We will all have to unlearn old ways, absorb new skills and take on new roles. Now, more than ever human intuition and problem-solving capabilities are becoming essential for sustainable economic production.

Elon Musk, the CEO at Tesla has admitted that “excessive automation” at his company was a mistake, tweeting that “Humans are underrated.”

There is no doubt that robots are much more consistent than humans and better at repetitive precision work. But, they’re inflexible and incapable of the adaptability and critical thinking that define us as humans. A machine cannot [yet] pick up the nuances of language, culture and body language. But when robots work together with people, they provide invaluable collaboration and make our work lives better. Universal Robots uses the term “cobots” for collaborative robots to emphasise the importance of people in robotic technology.

Industry 5.0 will make the factory a place where creative people can come and work, to create a more personalised and human experience for workers and their customers,” says Esben Østergaard, Universal Robots chief technology officer and co-founder.

A short aside here: When we hear of robots, we think of a contraption out of a sci-fi movie, speaking in a mechanical voice. In fact, there are many different types, that look nothing like the sci-fi machine. They include pre-programmed robots, humanoid robots, autonomous robots, teleoperated robots and augmenting robots. You can find out more about robots here

The Fifth Industrial Revolution will see much more advanced collaborative interactions between humans, machines, processes and systems for maximum performance optimisation.

Although we might not be exactly sure of how the Fifth Industrial Revolution will change our individual lives, we should be fully prepared to accept that it is unavoidable. Typewriters disappeared when word processors became ubiquitous. The big social and economic changes of an industrial revolution will sweep all along with it.

Here are some signals for you to watch out for as we progress ever deeper into the Fifth Industrial Revolution. They are not exhaustive, but they are important beacons showing the way.

Networked sensors will collect data everywhere, from your smart house to autonomous manufacturing plants, to traffic in the street. This will create huge amounts of data about every aspect of human life. This, in turn, will be used to improve systems, processes, manufacturing and delivery. When you discard an empty milk container in your smart waste bin, the entire value chain – right up to the dairy – will be informed, and will adjust production accordingly. Now multiply this by thousands of items in thousands of households, to see the combined effects. It is only possible through networked sensors.

Visualisation and modelling of processes like production lines will make every stage of a value chain open to inspection. This will be indispensable for managing and personalising future products and product lines.

Tracking systems will improve real-time production tracking from the checkout in the retailer, right back to the start of the production process. Constraints, unnecessary inventory and delays will be instantly visible. This assists with the reduction in material wastage, theft prevention, and prevention of mismanagement of assets when coupled with technologies like IoT and machine learning. 

Virtual training is where the trainee learns a specific task or skill in a virtual or simulated environment. This will explode in the near future because it provides a safe and accurate yet cost-effective environment for training drivers, pilots, firefighters, medical professionals, etc., without exposing them to the dangers and risks they might face in real venues or without imposing risk to others. Virtual training creates a skilled workforce without risking productivity or endangering a human worker.

Smart sensing will involve using the human brain as the source of signals. Special headsets effectively capture brain activations and can be used for a wide range of tasks, such as controlling a robotic arm, equipped with an instrument, to perform a certain task.

The Fifth Industrial Revolution will be a time of excitement and anxiety. We will be able to do and experience things that past generations could only dream of. But we will also have to leave behind, cherished skills, practices and mindsets.

The Fifth Industrial Revolution has the potential to initiate a new socio-economic era that closes the gaps between the “top” and the “bottom,” creating infinite opportunities for humanity, and for a better planet.

Start your personal preparation right now for this new reality by registering for a 5IR course at Regenesys

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