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Should we lose sleep over the 4th industrial revolution?

By XN Iraki | August 7th 2016
A disassembled drone from Autonomous Systems Research (ASR) on display at University of Nairobi innovation week. The body of the drone is 3D printed. Is the future arriving prematurely? [Photo: XN Iraki]

During a recent conference at the University of Nairobi, Bidco CEO Vimal Shah brought up possibility of printing a pizza in future. Imagine going to buy a pizza where you start on the computer screen; decide on the ingredients, size, toppings and then print it. Though some took it as a joke, that is where the future lies.

Every so often, we get innovations that change the way we relate and work. Facebook changed the way we relate, the computer the way we work. From our houses to work place, innovations and its key conveyor-technology have changed our lives. Strangely, with all the technology we work more and hustle more. Was the rest promised by technology an illusion?

The World Economic Forum (2016) lists four industrial revolutions. The first was mechanical based on steam engine and new and faster production systems at the end of 17th century. It marked a shift from muscles, either of a human being or a beast of burden.

The second was based on division of labour, electricity and mass production in mid 18th century. Third was based on electronics and automation, at the end of 1960s while the fourth and current one is based on cyber-physical systems; an interplay of computer systems and physical work. I see it as connecting the brains or thinking directly to output, be it a good or a service.

Three Dimensions (3D) technology seems to be at the heart of fourth industrial revolution. And it has left many people scared. If we can print a pizza, what will the guys making pizza do? My guess is they will be making the Pizza “printing ink”. There is more; what of internet of everything, where everything is connected to everything? What of virtual reality? What of big data and torturing it to yield patterns and trends? And the end of professionals? Shall we need doctors, teachers and lawyers in future?

Who thought drones will one day become a reality? Is Posta Kenya considering using drones to deliver our letters? Who thought drivers would one day not be needed? Ask Google. More interesting on the fourth revolution is the merging of biology and technology. Ever heard of biophysics, Biotechnology? Soon mechanical and natural limbs might be indistinguishable. If we can harness biological systems to drive mechanical systems, then Arthur Clarke’s observation that advanced technology and magic are indistinguishable could become a reality.

The most noticeable consequence of the fourth industrial revolution is ‘depersonalisation’. With minimised contact with service providers including in courtship; we are faced with a behavioural nightmare. Already symptoms are starting to emerge. Have you noted that the Facebook generation interact very differently compared with earlier generations?

On the economic front some jobs will be destroyed but new ones created. The first revolution, converted the horse into a pet from a beast of burden. But we needed mechanics to fix steam trains, and production systems. We needed designers, and of course other workers associated with such industries such as accountants and marketers.

In the second and third revolutions, we even got new fields of study like electrical, electronic, computer and software engineering and associated jobs like network administrators. The only people who look at such advances with trepidation are those who fear change.

Seedbeds of revolutions

While my job may be destroyed, why should I worry if my children or grandchildren will get better jobs that will ensure them higher living standards? Higher quality jobs are created, while old manual routine jobs die. What worries policy makers is that moving a large proportion of the population up the value chain needs a huge investment in education, particularly science and technology. That takes years. It is no wonder poor countries find it so hard to catch up with advanced ones.

Modern science and technology through innovations drive industrial revolutions. Are our schools, universities and research labs the seedbeds of such revolutions? How often do our schools get donations of the old technology after other sectors are tired of it? How the Government, particularly its regulatory arms react to the 4th industrial revolution will to a large extent determine its success.

Remember Uber and Mpesa? When are the 4th industrial revolution firms getting into NSE? We have missed other revolutions, and we have started none. We pay the price of that inactivity every day through costly obsolete technology, creating few jobs, and economic growth that does not catapult majority of the population to higher indifference curves.

We are mesmerized by the latest phones, owning a Facebook or Twitter accounts, whizzing of a drone overheard and all the gadgets in our houses and offices. But who really makes money out of that?

We should lose sleep over the fourth industrial revolution if it has no economic dividends for us beyond show off. For Vimal Shah, he can see where we are headed and the money to be made. And yourself?

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