The notion that we are in the midst of a “fourth” industrial revolution seems rather whimsical at first glance. But, research in the International Journal of Technology, Policy and Management looks at whether technological advances in recent years have been sufficiently marked and significant to represent a step change from the previous industrial paradigms.
Dominique Nijssen and Roger Bemelmans of the Research Center for Data Intelligence at Zuyd University of Applied Sciences in Heerlen and Harro van Lente of the Department of Technology and Society Studies at Maastricht University in Maastricht, The Netherlands, allude to the re-use of the phrase “fourth industrial revolution” by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum back in 2016. The researchers have looked at the evolution of 33 promising technologies during the period 2000 to 2019 to gauge whether the term is valid for this period of history.
Commonly, we think of the first industrial revolution as having its start in the middle (circa 1760) of the 18th Century in Great Britain and continental Europe and stretching into the early part of the nineteenth century, 1820 to 1840. This period saw the transition from manual production to machine production and the increasing use of water power and steam power to drive the rapidly developing industrial realm. A slowdown occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century but the subsequent period of economic growth and technological advance occurred as we learned to control electricity and develop long-distance communications technology, such as the telegraph and the telephone. This second industrial revolution lasted from around 1870 to the beginning of World War I.
It was not until the period after World War II, 1947 onwards that we talk of the third industrial revolution. This period was marked by the displacement of analogue electronics, the valves and relays, of the previous revolution, with digital devices and in many ways is still underway. However, we might talk of the rapid developments of information and communications technologies that came out of this third revolution as heralding an Information Age. However, even this paradigm was perhaps only a holding place for the true fourth industrial revolution, the rapid development of interconnectivity among a huge proportion of the world’s growing population, the emergence of smart technologies that exploit machine learning, big data, and algorithms that can be said to have artificial intelligence. These paradigm shifts in information and communications technology are occurring in parallel with and driving developments in robotics, medicine, industry, and even art and entertainment. The demarcation between the physical world, the digital realm, and even the natural world of biological systems are becoming fuzzy in Industry 4.0.
The team’s analysis of the purported technological visionaries, the products and services being paraded by such people, the actual technologies being adopted and where all of this sits with science and governmental policies around the world is a complicated picture. Indeed, the team’s work suggests that there is perhaps no coherence, no single developmental path, rather there exists a somewhat tangled web of technologies, authorities, visionaries, and individuals. This, however, is probably exactly as how observers in the midst of all previous industrial revolutions perceived the changes happening around them at the time.
There are nevertheless visions and changes that are underway that may well represent the paradigm shift that takes us from the old worldview into the new. Underlying the evolution of the revolution are Artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, renewable energy, shared autonomy, and transportation systems. However, governments and policymakers may well not recognise this Top 5 just yet, if ever, and it seems that the list is not even at the top of the scientific research agenda. Fundamentally, the concept of a fourth industrial revolution is a diffuse one and agendas and investment are pushed and pulled in different ways depending on the particular definition being tabled at any given time by a particular individual or group.
One thing of which we can be almost wholly assured, however, is that the world will change whatever terms we use to describe the changes. The historians of the future will almost certainly pay no heed to our opinions of those changes and will give us a label to fit with their view of the past.
Nijssen, D., Bemelmans, R. and van Lente, H. (2022) ‘Unravelling the fourth industrial revolution: a comparative study of a label’, Int. J. Technology, Policy and Management, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp.288–305.