“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another," said Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum in his book ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution*’.
This statement was made at the beginning of 2017 but could just as well have been said 200 years ago, before the first industrial revolution redefined civilization.
Prior to 1760, the world's population was totally insular, living in closed communities with limited skill sets and food supplies, following family traditions with no thought of change.
Starting in the UK, with the invention and refinement of the steam engine and steam power, agriculture boomed and food supplies fuelled increases in population, leading to the development of new markets.
Allowing factories to spring up anywhere, not just around water mills, industrialization spread. Cities were created, full of consumers and the growth of the railroads allowed even further expansion and urbanization.
Agriculture was abandoned in favor of production of goods in the forms of textiles, steel, food and more. Jobs were created, and the media, transport systems, medical services - everything was reinvented and everyday life was transformed.
All this took place over a period of around 80 years, until the mid-1800s, its effect spreading out into Europe and the Americas.
As the 20th century dawned, population and urbanization continued to grow, boosted massively by the latest invention and widespread use of electrical power. The 2nd industrial revolution sparked developments into mass production, with assembly lines for food, clothes and goods as well as major leaps forward in transport, medicine and weapons.
Europe remained dominant, but other nations were now attaining the power and technology to advance independently.
By the 1960s, civilization had settled down again after two World Wars, with that application of wartime technology sparking innovation and forward thinking once again in peacetime. The usefulness of the silicon wafer was discovered, leading to the development of semiconductors and mainframe computers, evolving into personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s. With the growth of the internet and the World Wide Web in the 1990s, the computer, or digital, revolution was well underway, internationally.
Speed and momentum gathered as new discoveries continued to be made through collaboration and the spread of knowledge, leading to where we are now. Building on the digital revolution, we now have the far-reaching mobile internet, inexpensive solid state memory capabilities and massive computing power resources. Combined with smaller, more powerful devices and sensors, we are now able to draw on information to advance even further, using technologies such as robotics, big data, simulation, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Smart factories allow cooperation between these virtual and physical systems, allowing the creation of new operating models that can even be represented as Digital Twins for diagnostic and productivity improvement.
We are facing great leaps forward in fields such as nanotechnology, renewables, genetics and quantum computing, now linking the physical and digital domains with biological aspects in a new branch of this latest revolution.
The speed of change is astounding, compared to the long, slow spread of those first revolutionary developments. Technology is moving so quickly, with globally connected devices making the world even smaller, allowing exchanges of skills and ideas to propagate new inventions across disciplines.
Without the small first step of the 1st Industrial Revolution, however, we would be continuing our insular lives with no travel or exploration, limited food sources, susceptibility to health challenges and no prospect of innovation.
So, although we are now continually on the brink of profound change and momentous international developments are becoming inevitable, we need to embrace them and open our imaginations to move forward on this exciting step of our course in history.
As Klaus Schwab concluded; "In its scale, scope & complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before*.”
* The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab, Published January 2017, Random House USA Inc.