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The unfolding revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has begun, and economies and societies are changing at breathtaking speed. We need to keep in step with it. Technological advancements—in artificial intelligence, robotics, self-driving vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, quantum computing and the Internet of Things—are changing the entire social order. If we fail to account for it in our plans for the future, the world could pass us by, and our people will be the worse off for it.

The First Industrial Revolution, usually traced to the period from 1760 to around 1830, came with the discovery of how to use water and steam power to mechanize production. Mechanized textile production was considered the flagship of this era. The Second, from 1870 up to around 1920, came with large-scale production of iron and steel, and use of petroleum and electric power to make mass production a reality. Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line to mass-produce cars was its flagship. The Third, which started in the 1990s and is still ongoing, is marked by the use of electronics and information technology to automate production. A Fourth Industrial Revolution is now building on the Third and rapidly taking it to new heights. Its distinguishing feature is the fusion of technologies across the physical, digital and biological spheres.

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An anonymous piece on “The Nearing Future” has been making the email rounds, describing the shape of things to come in the wake of this new revolution which, unlike its precedents that proceeded at linear pace, is zooming at exponential speed. It is also changing a wide range of industries, and transforming entire systems of production, management and governance. Here’s a tiny sampling of the article’s predictions:

The first self-driving cars will appear for the public in 2018 and by 2020 the complete industry will start being disrupted. People will eventually no longer need to own a car; they can use their phone to call one, and it will come and drive them where they want (rendering irrelevant the average Filipinos’ “Ambisyon 2040” aspiration of owning a car). Most traditional car companies will go bankrupt, as tech companies like Tesla, Apple, and Google take over with the revolutionary approach of building computers on wheels.

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Electricity will become cheap and clean, as solar energy’s exponential growth over the last 30 years continues. Last year, more solar energy was installed worldwide than fossil. While power companies desperately try to limit access to the grid to prevent competition from home solar installations, the technology is unstoppable. And with cheap electricity comes cheap and abundant water, as desalination of salt water now only needs 2kWh per cubic meter, and falling.

By 2027, one-tenth of everything that’s being produced will be 3D printed. The cheapest 3D printers dropped from $18,000 to $400 within 10 years, and became 100 times faster. All major shoe companies have started 3D printing shoes. Airplane parts are already 3D printed in remote airports. Smart phones will have 3D scanning capability by next year, allowing you to 3D scan your feet and print your perfect shoe at home. China has already 3D printed and built houses and a complete 6-story office building.

More rapid developments are transpiring, including in healthcare and agriculture. With these, 70-80 percent of present jobs are projected to disappear in 20 years, including in our business process outsourcing industry (leading many to call for planning for the “post-BPO era”). The revolution will create new kinds of jobs, but it’s unclear if these could offset the massive displacement. In his recent commencement speech at Harvard, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg called for a new economic order to ensure that
everyone has a sense of purpose in life—and proposed the radical idea of a universal guaranteed basic income for all, impliedly funded by multibillionaires like him.

Economics is indeed going through a serious rethink, and a revolution in the discipline may yet be in the offing, to keep in step with the Fourth Industrial Revolution now unfolding before us.

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TAGS: 3D printing, artificial intelligence, Biotechnology, energy storage, materials science, nanotechnology, quantum computing, Robotics, self-driving vehicles, Technology
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