The Malta Independent 15 August 2022, Monday

Revolution of the fifth kind

Mark Said Sunday, 19 June 2022, 07:35 Last update: about 3 months ago

It comes close on the heels of the fourth (digital) revolution which came close on the heels of the third and second (electric powered mass production) which itself came close on the heels of the first (industrial, water and steam-powered machinery). Where creativity meets technology is its main characteristic.

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society. Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Digital fabrication technologies, meanwhile, are interacting with the biological world on a daily basis. Engineers, designers and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, material engineering and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.


World connection by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in multiple fields. In the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. Transportation and communication costs will drop, logistics and global supply chains will become more effective and the cost of trade will diminish, all of which will open new markets and drive economic growth. At the same time, this revolutionary trend could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labour markets. As automation substitutes for labour across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labour. In the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production. This will give rise to a job market increasingly segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions.

In addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fifth Industrial Revolution. Technology is one of the main reasons why incomes have stagnated, or even decreased, for a majority of the population in high-income countries: the demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The result is a job market with a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle. Across all industries, there is clear evidence that the technologies that underpin the Fifth Industrial Revolution are having a major impact on businesses. On the supply side, many industries are seeing the introduction of new technologies that create entirely new ways of serving existing needs and significantly disrupt existing industry value chains. Disruption is also flowing from agile, innovative competitors who, thanks to access to global digital platforms for research, development, marketing, sales and distribution, can oust well-established incumbents faster than ever by improving the quality, speed or price at which value is delivered.

This Fifth Revolution will not spare the government. Ultimately, the ability of government systems and public authorities to adapt will determine their survival. If they prove capable of embracing a world of disruptive change, subjecting their structures to the levels of transparency and efficiency that will enable them to maintain their competitive edge, they will endure. If they cannot evolve, they will face increasing trouble. This will be particularly true in the realm of regulation. Current systems of public policy and decision-making evolved alongside the Second Industrial Revolution when decision-makers had time to study a specific issue and develop the necessary response or appropriate regulatory framework. The whole process was designed to be linear and mechanistic, following a strict “top-down” approach. But such an approach is no longer feasible. Given the Fifth Industrial Revolution’s rapid pace of change and broad impacts, legislators and regulators are being challenged to an unprecedented degree and for the most part, are proving unable to cope.

World governments need to adequately plan for and regulate these new capabilities to ensure our security. Leaders and citizens must together shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding themselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people. Humans must be proactive in shaping this technology and disruption. This requires global cooperation and a shared view of how technology is reshaping our economic, social, cultural and individual lives. This fifth industrial revolution is a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technological advances commensurate with those of the four preceding industrial revolutions. These advances are merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril. The speed, breadth and depth of this revolution are forcing us to rethink how countries develop, how organisations create value and even what it means to be human. It is an opportunity to help everyone, including leaders, policy-makers and people from all income groups and nations, to harness converging technologies in order to create an inclusive, human-centred future.

Technologies like artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and the internet of things are merging with humans’ physical lives. Think of voice-activated assistants, facial ID recognition or digital health-care sensors. These will drastically alter how individuals, companies and governments operate, ultimately leading to a societal transformation similar to previous industrial revolutions. Occurring simultaneously are waves of further breakthroughs in areas ranging from gene sequencing to nanotechnology, from renewables to quantum computing.

The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.


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