The implications of having an industrial revolution in one generation

Martin Butler is a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and technology research associate at the Institute for Futures Research. (Picture: Supplied)
Martin Butler is a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and technology research associate at the Institute for Futures Research. (Picture: Supplied)

It is well known, and widely shared, that we are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). 

Tales of gloom and statements like “Robots will rule/take your job,” and bullish predictions like, “We are on the brink of unheralded change and prosperity,” abound.

Every futurist and technologist seems to have an opinion.

My concern lies with the lack of educationalist voices given that this revolution is fundamentally different than the predecessors, particularly re-education. 

There is no denying the transformative nature of the 4IR for industry, society and the economy, but it is in the lack of appreciation of the impact on education, that real danger lurks.

The world has undergone significant change through a series of industrial revolutions, from the advent of water and steam power, to electric power and most recently the rise of computers. 

It is well documented, if not yet universally accepted as a revolution, that the scale, speed and impact of new technologies, built around artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, additive manufacturing and biotechnology is set to change the world completely.

Progress in technology has always been linked to improvements in living standards and transforming society. 

The original Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) saw significant economic development in the age of mechanisation through steam and water power. 

The Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1900) saw improvements in electricity, the internal combustion engine, analogue communications, entertainment and using hydro-carbons to power the world we live in. 

The Third Industrial Revolution (1960 onwards) revolved around computing and communications technologies destroying distance and costs barriers. 

The ability to process and transmit vast amounts of information and communicate with anyone wherever humanity could reach, meant communication was no longer limited by geographical distances. 

Vast computing power led to complex decisions involving vast sets of data being made in an instant. 

In the last four decades the world transformed from what we knew (‘knowledge’), to our abilities to obtain and utilise information using powerful computing and telecommunications devices (‘application’). 

The education world, notoriously slow to react, seemed to have caught up with a strong focus on application.
One attribute of the 4IR that is fundamentally different, is the exponential diffusion of the underlying technologies and their applications. 

An interesting relationship exists between subsequent industrial revolutions. 

Mechanisation (First Industrial Revolution) enabled mass production (second), mass production and electricity (second) enabled the manufacturing of computers and telecommunications devices (third). 

Similarly, the foundations of the 4IR are being made possible by the information collection, transmission and processing capabilities of the third revolution. 

But the very same cost and geographical barriers destroyed by the third revolution now provide the pathway to this new cyber-physical world created by the 4IR. 

With AI, robotics, IoT, 3D printing and other 4IR foundations in essence being digitised capabilities, they have been spreading much quicker than steam, railways, electricity and computers, i.e. physical entities. 

In fact, these technologies are dispersing at exponential rates – bringing the promise of peril or greatness at an unprecedented rate.
So what is the key difference, as a result of this exponential spread, between the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the ones that came before? 

The 4IR is a transformation in one generation. In previous revolutions society was transformed through natural generational changes. 

The world, mostly, had the luxury of gradually phasing out a mid-career workforce and enabling and educating a new generation to use the new tools of the trade, a natural process of skill and capability transformation. 

A new generation learnt the new tricks of the trade as the old phased out and new in. 

In essence, while father still guided a coach, the son was a train driver – at the same time. 

Or while the mother used a slide rule, the daughter used a calculator.

This is a situation that will not be tolerated by the 4IR. 

It is highly likely that in the complex cyber-physical transformed work environment in 10 to 20 years, the current 20- to 30-somethings will be completely ill-equipped to deal with their tools and techniques of the trade, yet have another 20 or more years to be economically active. 

We will have to reshape education for the new generation, on top of the need to build new skills and capacities in more than 50% of the current workforce or it will indeed be peril, not opportunity.

The robots will only come for our jobs if we are caught napping and believe that the current educational system is appropriate for the immediate and long terms futures. 

It will be challenging for robots to replace educators, among others, but if educators do not prepare the current and future generations for the post-4IR society and work environment, maybe they should?

Martin Butler is a senior lecturer in information systems management, project management, technology futures at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and Technology Research Associate at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR).

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