As the fourth industrial revolution changes the world in a myriad of different ways, Dalim Basu CITP FBCS, Chair of BCS London and Central branches and events director explores the emerging technologies and how embracing change will help the world achieve goals in advancement and sustainability.

The World Economic Forum recently released a report entitled Unlocking Technology for the Global Goals. It discovered that around 70% of its targets to tackle environmental issues such as climate change and habitat loss, as well as social issues ranging from poverty through to inequality, could be tackled by harnessing the power of technology. Looking at the next decade, the WEF gives predictions, based on the applications of today, on what can be achieved in health, clean energy, industry, innovation and infrastructure.

What is the fourth industrial revolution?

The fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR, is a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, medical advances and other technologies.

It's the collective force behind many products and services that are fast becoming indispensable to our modern life, including GPS systems (for navigation), voice-activated virtual assistants such as Apple's Siri, personalised Netflix recommendations and Facebook's ability to recognise your face and tag you in a friend's photo.

The 48-page document, produced in collaboration with Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) looks at how the fourth Industrial Revolution is paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live as well as radically disrupting almost every business sector at an unprecedented whirlwind pace – and fast changing our consumer expectations.

Antonia Gawel of WEF AND Celine Herweijer of PwC wrote: “The speed and scale of advances in the past few years alone has been immense: The global big data market almost doubled in market size in three years with a total revenue of $49 billion in 2019; worldwide spending on artificial intelligence (AI) was approximately $35.8 billion in 2019, with a 44% increase from 2018; and for blockchain solutions nearly $2.9 billion was spent in 2019, an increase of 88.7% from 2018; The first fully electric aeroplane made a successful virgin voyage in November 2019; and 5G is no longer a potential future but the reality in more than 13 countries. The easiest way to understand the fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on all of our lives, is to focus on the technologies that are driving innovation forward.

1. Artificial Intelligence

AI describes computers that can think like humans - in some ways at least - recognising complex patterns, processing information that would normally require human intelligence such as visual perception and speech recognition and drawing conclusions in order to make recommendations for humans to then consider in their decision making.

AI is already being used in medicine. The technology has been shown to help with the diagnosis of disease through to the creation of new medicines. It has helped to identify criminals through facial recognition. It has started the revolution in driverless cars that can change lanes, brake, avoid collisions, all through the use of big data to assess and predict outcomes.

While the technology advances in leaps and bounds, touching all areas of our working and home lives (AI is used in Alexa and Netflix to mention just a few), we need to ask, what are the moral, the ethical, the legal and the religious implications of AI? While there is a fear of AI displacing jobs (it is estimated that 65% of children now entering school will hold jobs that currently don't exist), the machine is currently unable to take over human creativity and collaboration through teamwork.

2. Blockchain

This is a distributed ledger technology that uses software to record and verify transactions reliably and anonymously. It was created, ostensibly to sidestep the influence of banks and fiat currency, cutting out third party intermediaries.

The digital currency bitcoin is the best known blockchain application, although I should say there are actually dozens of digital currencies or crypto currencies. However, the technology can be used in other ways including making supply chains traceable, securing sensitive medical data anonymously and combating voter fraud, for example.

3. The Internet of Things and 5G

This describes the networking of a collection of “things” such as objects with sensors, software, net connectivity and computer capability that can collect and exchange data over the internet to enable smart solutions.

This could be something as simple as your fridge telling your Alexa shopping list to buy milk or a Fitbit monitoring a user’s heartrate, through to tracking devices inserted into parcels - all being connected to the internet and identifiable by other devices. This has been helped by the faster speeds and bandwidth of 5G and 5th generation technologies and networks.

Businesses can collect customer data from constantly connected products allowing them to better gauge how customers use these products and to tailor marketing campaigns accordingly. There are also many industrial applications. And also, things such as farmers putting IOT sensors into fields and into trees to monitor the soil attributes or the tree growth attributes and make decisions as to when to fertilise or when to trim the trees.

4. Big data and quantum computing

While big data was found to influence 100% of the projects in the WEF report, commercial quantum computing technologies now in development, are still, relatively in their infancy. However, the mind boggling potential of quantum, with its ability to carry out billions of calculations in a twinkling of an eye, will change computing forever.

5. Robotics

Refers to the design, manufacture and use of electro-mechanical machines that assist human activities autonomously or operating to a set of pre-defined instructions. Professor of Business Analysis, Warren Bennis is quoted as saying: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

Robots are used in fields as wide-ranging as manufacturing, health and safety and human assistance. In Japan, robotics has been explored in areas such as helping the ageing population as well as customer service in the Henn Na Hotel staffed entirely by human looking robots. While the robot has taken over many repetitive, dare I say, boring roles and autonomous machines can mow your lawn or vacuum your carpet, we have yet to see robot housekeepers in every home.

6. Augmented and virtual reality

Augmented reality and virtual reality offers a 3D computer simulation laid over a created true to life landscape, or works with the viewers’ surroundings. This has many applications from teaching trainee pilots to land a jumbo jet to more fun applications of creating 3D paintings or walking across a plank, fifty storeys above the ground. Augmented reality is being developed to assist the human. Offering solutions to projects as they work, merging both the physical and digital worlds.

Examples include makeup apps, clothing apps, furniture apps, which allow users to digitally choose and accept recommendations to experiment with products before buying them. There's also the Google Translate phone application, which allows users to scan and instantly translate street signs, menus and other text - handy for tourists and lifechanging for the partially sighted.

7. 3D Printing

This allows the printing of layers of materials to create an object, allowing manufacturing businesses to print their own parts with less tooling at a lower cost and faster than traditional processes, plus designs can be customised to ensure a perfect fit.

The advent of 3D printers has enabled hospitals to “print” respirators for people suffering with COVID, as well as help to “print” homes for the homeless. However, the downside is, it can have less desirable uses, with examples of criminals using the technology to print 3D guns.

8. Synthetic biology and advanced materials

Bio-technology, harnesses cellular and molecular processes to develop new processes and products for a range of uses. These could be developing new, lifesaving pharmaceuticals and materials, more efficient industrial manufacturing processes and cleaner, more efficient energy usage.

Work is now in-hand to create the strongest biomaterial ever produced. Scientists are developing technologies to target medicines on the coronavirus. The meat industry might even be “dead” with the creation of synthetic steaks, grown in a lab.

The search for materials with better conductivity and the production of more high energy density batteries will also drive innovation in the electricity sector allowing easier, more cost-effective energy storage and transmission. This would allow improvements not only in the weight and battery life of the mobile phone, but offer increased usability in the electric car market.

The innovation of materials for better conductivity, plastics, metal alloys and biomaterials promises to shake up many sectors including food, manufacturing, construction, healthcare and renewable energy.

9. Cloud access

Of the 100% of innovations that are based on big data, around 80% of the technologies that will change the way we live and work are cloud based. The WEF forecasts that the value of cloud computing will be around US$623bn by 2025.

10. Drones

Drones will increase in number and increase in function. In fact, the WEF report predicts that the market will increase to be worth $US 52bn by 2030. A report from PwC way back in 2018, Skies without limits, says that not only is drone technology changing and shaping our world - it is actually helping us to shape a better future.

Aerial shots from drones on documentaries and dramas are now commonplace. Likewise, archaeologists are using drones to spot patterns in soil on the landscape where they could find buried buildings, while surveyors are using drones to assess the condition of tall buildings, without the use of a harness and carabiner.

Geologists and geographers are using drones to see difficult or dangerous to navigate areas. And in the case of natural disasters, drones have even been used to carry small amounts of supplies into the worst affected areas. While drones can be used to save life, they can also carry rockets and kill suspected terrorists in far off lands. Which leads us to ethical issues of when and how drones should be used.

Will tech save the world?

Technology uses a lot of resources. Computer components are not always mined in the most ethical or sustainable ways either to the environment or to human life. The electricity needed to power these advances are making many people ask if the price is too high?

While no one can deny the use of power in tech, the use of technology can discover new ways to lessen human impact on the earth. Smart cities, actively conserving energy use, for example, in traffic lights when there is no traffic. Apps to monitor power station pollution, or AI to map and bring those to account for deforestation.

COVID-19 is being fought by scientists, organisations and IT people worldwide. The NHS is using contact tracing apps. HMRC has used tech to process millions of claims for furloughed workers, speeding up the process and paying a workforce in lockdown.

We need to have better technology for good, which means using technology to smooth the disruptions in our world and to improve well-being, for us today and also for future generations. So, what can we do, right now?

Learn, support BCS, make things better

At a time when many people are at home we should use the time for learning and improving our skills and our capabilities for tackling the challenges of our world. If you’re interested in artificial intelligence, why not look at taking a qualification in AI at BCS?

If you are worried about the impact of COVID on cyber security, see how you can improve your knowledge through CISSP, CITP or if you’re just embarking on a new career or a career change, an apprenticeship?

Join a BCS specialist group such as the Green IT SG who ask such questions as "technology - Is it a friend or foe of climate change?" Take a look at the events calendar and sign up to learn about a huge range of different topics.

Make your time in lockdown something that enriches both you and the world in which we live.

Further information

This article was written from an original talk held by Dalim Basu for BCS.

Watch the YouTube recording