It's commonly said that we are now in a fourth industrial revolution. What does that mean? How will it affect us? Before answering question, we'll take a look at the previous industrial revolutions.
How did technology in each industrial revolution disrupt society and culture?
First Industrial Revolution
Late 18th Century - Mechanization
The first industrial revolution was when we as humans figured out how to use things like water for our own purposes. Steam power is one of the most significant results of this - with steam engines, we could make trains, significantly better ships, and large scale factories. This requires fuel to run of course, which is why coal was commonly used at the time. It was cheap, abundant, and its negative effects were largely ignored.
Second Industrial Revolution
Late 19th Century - Mass Production
The invention of the assembly line meant that instead of making bespoke, specialized products requiring extremely knowledgeable professionals, workers could simply be taught to do one specific task and repeatedly do just that task. Additionally, workers could be swapped in and out, leading to the first 24/7 factories (i.e., Ford's factories with eight hour shifts - there was always people working at the factory!)
While there are its downsides, mass production greatly drove down costs of goods. This makes many goods far more accessible to consumers.
Third Industrial Revolution
Late 20th Century - Digital Revolution
Electronic computers are the star of this revolution. From vacuum tubes to transistors so small they're literally invisible to the naked eye, the digital revolution has lead to an explosion of growth both in personal computing and business computing. The invention and growth of the internet is also party of this, but "hyper-connectivity" - the idea that we all can be connected anywhere, anytime - is a later concept that's part of the fourth industrial revolution.
Fourth Industrial Revolution
Technology has changed by leaps and bounds since the first computer. While we can't say with certainty what'll exactly be next, there are a lot of promising disruptive technologies out there. Two of these are hyper-connectivity - the concept of having everything and everyone connected to the internet - and superintelligence - intelligence powered by technology through artificial intelligence and machine learning.
How will hyper-connectivity and superintelligence shape the next revolution?
Hyper-connectivity has many positive and negative implications. Here's some of each:
- Benefit: Readily accessible information everywhere. At the grocery store, unsure whether the store's ripping you off or not? Just check the prices at another store! Even better, do it all from the comfort of your home, and order everything to be delivered.
- Benefit: Communication and human "connectiveness". This is really part of the third industrial revolution, but the progress we've made since have only made this better.
- Cost: Disinformation. Only recently have people, businesses, and governments realized the power the internet wields. We're no longer in a "wild west" where the internet was simply a "universal information system"; Tom Scott explains this very well.
Superintelligence on the other hand is still too buzzwordy for me to comment much upon. Yes, Artificial Intelligence has grown leaps and bounds since it first started. Yes, XKCD's joke about "being able to recognize whether a picture contains a bird or not"
requiring five years of dedicated research has really become true. But do we really know where this is heading? I wouldn't be able to say.
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