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Studying the Fourth Industrial Revolution to Harness its Transformative Power

August 27, 2019

Article and Q&A questions written by Jonathan Ward, Media Relations Manager at Thunderbird 

(Reach Jonathan at 480-490-9773 or jonathan.ward@thunderbird.asu.edu)

Q&A answers provided by Mark Esposito, Clinical Professor of Global Shifts and the Fourth Industrial Revolution at Thunderbird

Picture this: Microscopic robots that can go inside our bodies to fight disease. Thinking machines capable of designing and building other thinking machines. Gene editing to treat inherited medical ailments. Cybernetic computer implants that enhance our sensory perception and cognitive abilities or connect our brains to robotic systems. Fleets of autonomous aerial and ground vehicles controlled by a computer mind. Ecosystems of interconnected devices and data sets that evolve, merge and grow online. 

It may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but these are some of the new technologies rapidly coming into existence and maturing today, thereby transforming tomorrow. These striking advances are happening all over the planet right now, and they’re connecting at increasing speed, overlapping, combining into aggregates that develop new layers of functionality, spawning whole new industries as we see with aerial drones and ride-hailing apps. In recent years, converging advances transcended the boundaries of the foundational technology they developed from, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) began to take shape. 

Studying the 4th IR 2

The original Industrial Revolution was driven by steam power facilitating mechanized production. The days of individual craftsmen making most products by hand ended with the advent of steam power, which also revolutionized transportation when steamboats replaced sail and railroads connected cities, allowing goods and people to flow globally as never before. The Second Industrial Revolution was largely defined by electricity’s ability to take mechanized production to a scale never before possible. With the computerization of that mass production, the Third Industrial Revolution transformed manufacturing once again while ushering in the Digital Age, also called the Information Age, a shift that irrevocably changed the nature and scale of how we communicate, how we manage information, and how we manipulate the world around us. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is naturally growing out of the Third, but with a host of new technologies driving this metamorphosis rather than one powerful advancement as with the periods of disruption and innovation that preceded it. Another defining characteristic of this new epoch is the propensity for new technologies to interconnect and produce new developments at an accelerated rate by virtue of that interconnection.  

Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Like the three industrial revolutions before it, 4IR is a new phase in human history that is fundamentally altering our lives and our world – changing jobs, leisure, communication, and even how we perceive our humanity. No aspect of modern life will be left untouched by this sweeping wave of technological change that includes disciplines and breakthroughs such as nanotechnology, advanced brain research, 3D printing, high speed mobile communication networks, ubiquitous computing, blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineering, big data and data analytics, green energy, quantum computing, the internet of things and the internet of systems, just to name a few.  

4IR will affect the very essence of what’s possible in our human experience with the advent of technology capable of connecting our bodies to new computerized hardware and software applications. This fusion of living, material, and digital will create realities we have previously only imagined as innovations grow out from converging technologies in a manner similar to symbiosis developing between organisms over time. One example of this interconnectedness can be found in a new field of research that combines breakthroughs in robotics and neurology that allow engineers and scientists to connect our brains to robots. A system of microscopically thin electrodes transfers data-carrying signals back and forth, creating a brain-computer interface that may soon allow a person to control a robot much like a bodily extension. Such a feat could lead to blurring the line between the human mind and artificial intelligence when thinking machines are introduced into the equation.  

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution will affect the very essence of what’s possible in our human experience.” Click to tweet 

What other factors make this period of rapid innovation different from the previous three industrial revolutions? The speed, scale, and interconnectivity of technological changes during the 4IR are so profound and non-linear that together they distinguish it as an epoch. Take for example a scenario in which a medical team in Phoenix uses remote robotic technology and artificial intelligence to diagnose an injured patient in Baghdad. Collaborating online with doctors and nurses at the patient’s location, the remote team uses data extracted from a 3D X-ray of the patient’s broken bone fed into a 3D printer to fabricate a perfectly fitting new plastic bone piece that functions like scaffolding when it’s infused with stem cells taken from a fat tissue sample. The stem cells grow into the form of the 3D-printed bone, ultimately producing a piece of living bone in the exact shape needed, which a surgeon on the other side of the world implants directly into the patient’s body as if it were a missing puzzle piece. The surgeon can perform this remote surgical procedure using a robotic arm equipped with cameras, lasers, electrified scalpels, and other precision tools. Such a scenario would not have been possible before the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Studying the Fourth IR

In another 4IR scenario that’s already become reality, copper miners working hundreds of meters underground deploy wearable technology that tracks their locations, activities, and working conditions, constantly amassing new datasets that are analyzed by AI in order to predict certain key outcomes such as when it will be necessary to proactively reorder parts and supplies, or the future time and location of the next worker injury, allowing engineers to preemptively add safety controls in that location before anyone gets hurt. 

There are infinite possibilities we have yet to imagine waiting to be invented or discovered as more knowledge is collected and made available to more people. Some futurists have speculated that the possibilities for our species functioning as a collective hive mind are virtually boundless as billionsof people become linked together like individual neurons by computers wielding endlessly increasing processing power, memory and access to learning. While nobody knows what will transpire in the future, it is safe to say that the boundary between what is possible and impossible is sure to be moved dramatically by technological developments, some in fields that don’t even exist yet. This prospect of pervasive change can be both encouraging and ominous at the same time.

High Stakes for an Increasingly Interconnected Planet

The positive potential of the 4IR is only matched by its danger. The Fourth Industrial Revolution could alter or transform the business models of every industry precisely at a time when global climate change is forcing businesses and economies to adopt new tools, systems, and practices. There is nothing quite like an existential threat to our species to foster even more innovation, and that primal level of motivation may be exactly what is needed to stave off extinction, so we can expect to see a veritable explosion of technological breakthroughs as the impacts of climate change continue to unfold and become more severe. 

“New tools do not guarantee social progress.” Click to tweet

This new period of disruption also comes at a time when modern civilization is dealing with a new spike in political and ideological blowback stemming from the social upheaval of the previous industrial revolution; namely, the various blends of nationalism, nativism, and other parochial belief systems that are facilitating a resurgence of dictatorships and reactionary regimes around the world. Anti-globalist movements are partly the products of the disillusionment originating from large swaths of populations missing out on the economic gains of the globalization period that coincided with the Third Industrial Revolution. If the wealth benefits of the last 75 years of innovation had been more equitably distributed, the world would almost certainly be less susceptible to the negative effects of the provincial thinking we now see fertilizing the ground for the seeds of tyranny to germinate in. The fact that the rise of protectionism and isolationism in international trade can be traced and empirically linked to socioeconomic injustice carried out by the beneficiaries of technological change reminds us that new tools do not guarantee social progress.

Studying the 4th IR 3 

Because the changes of the 4IR are projected to be so deep and broad, it has the potential to raise standards of living around the world, lifting millions of people out of poverty. Yet it’s also possible that the 4IR will exacerbate the increasing economic inequality that has been a hallmark of the Third Industrial Revolution, a nightmare scenario in a world already dealing with negative effects of climate change such as mass migration of displaced populations, food insecurity, armed conflict, spikes in violent crime, and destabilized governments, among others. With stakes this high for our entire planet, a coordinated global response is critical. Our approach must be collective, informed and strategic. Action must be built on fact-based decisions, and that requires experts to study the issue and share what they learn. 

Harnessing the Transformative Power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The scope and depth of the social and industrial changes that will come about through the 4IR are unprecedented in human history, and for this reason, it’s not only companies doing business in the private sector that will be forced to adapt. All organizations will need to make systemic changes to keep up with the coming disruptions, including governments and institutions of higher learning. As the U.S. leader in innovation, Arizona State University is well-positioned to capitalize on this epoch of rapid technological progress. For more than 70 years, building a world-class faculty has always been an essential element of how ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management has maintained its edge as a leading higher education institution. 

Being the world’s premier global leadership and management school requires Thunderbird to constantly add the best and brightest minds to its roster of professors, instructors, lecturers and other thought leaders. In keeping with this tradition of excellence and its commitment to educating future-ready leaders who can advance inclusive and sustainable prosperity worldwide, Thunderbird has recently welcomed Mark Espositoto join the faculty in the role of Clinical Professor of Global Shifts and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  

Mark Esposito

Renowned 4IR expert Mark Esposito has joined ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management

“All organizations, including governments and institutions of higher learning, will need to make systemic changes to keep up with the coming disruptions.” Click to tweet

Professor Esposito’s newest book is titled “The AI Republic: Building the Nexus Between Humans and Intelligent Automation,” cowritten with Dr. Terence Tse and Danny Goh. The authors have not written a book for coders, but for everyone curious about a future shaped by AI. They demystify this world-changing technology and explain how we can build a shared space where humans and intelligent automation work together. “The AI Republic” explores the potential problems and promises of AI, offering perspectives on its relevancy for people everywhere, whether you're a business executive who wants to implement it, a government leader responsible for policy creation, or a parent who wants to prepare your children to grow up with AI as a companion. 

Knowledge Network sat down with Professor Esposito to discuss some of the considerations for our near future that his new book addresses.

Knowledge Network:In general, how will AI and intelligent automation change international business over the next decade?

Professor Esposito: The change has already started. This technology has awakened from decades of AI winter to drive an unstoppable rise in the way we have redefined efficiency in light of automation. Businesses that are unable to digitize, automate, explore and eventually implement machine learning will suffer significant loss of productivity and declining competitive positions. 

“Businesses that are unable to digitize, automate, explore and eventually implement machine learning will suffer significant loss of productivity and declining competitive positions.” Click to tweet

KN: What are some ways that AI and intelligent automation are likely to impact the daily lives of citizens who don’t interface with the technology directly?

Esposito: Well, it is hard to imagine that we are not interfacing directly already, regardless of our intents. Most of AI is implicit, which means it has become constituent of how products, camera, surveillance systems, and passport controls are conducted, for instance. So the switch on/off button does not really exist anymore. We are constantly exposed. What still needs to grow alongside this systematic use of the tech is the awareness and the public debate necessary for societies to own the conversations around the impact of AI and its most immediate implications.

KN: What should industry and government be doing now to prevent unemployment (joblessness), low productivity and increased economic inequality in the near future? 

Esposito: It is a difficult question to answer in a simple way, but in very generic terms, we need to modernize our economic infrastructure and redesign our main concepts and constructs around the creation of economic value, which can be directly generated as part of either the exchange economy or the traded one. We need leaders across sectors to foster a rise of new business models, some of them inspired by the extra time we will gain from employing more automated processes in the labor force. We need industry and government to give room to ingenuity, entrepreneurship and business model innovation. 

“We need leaders across sectors to foster a rise of new business models, some of them inspired by the extra time we will gain from employing more automated processes in the labor force.” Click to tweet

KN: How can technologically advanced countries help prevent less advanced nations from being left behind?

Esposito: This technology must become more affordable and aimed at scaling in global markets as General Purpose Technology (GPT) or GPAI as it is called these days. Only when AI and Intelligent Automation become accessible across all regions of the world will we see the productivity gap between rich and poor countries eventually reconciled.

KN: Are you concerned that the Fourth Industrial Revolution could turn into a dark and negative era of change by “robotizing” humanity, alienating us from each other by turning human connections into mechanical transactions of data? What happens if there is no moral progress to go along with this fast and fundamental technological advancement?

Esposito: I am not particularly concerned about the extreme case of automation turning into some form of bleak singularity. I think we have been depicting the power of this technology with human characteristics and features, but AI is not a form of intelligence that can take over. It is just algorithmic computational power. What I am concerned about is data and who owns it. Today data is “hoarded” in the hands of relatively few players, and yes, this data dominance is worrying. 

The conversation on the moral compass is indeed the most important aspect of this legitimate concern. I have written, with colleagues from Berkeley, a paper called “Magna Carta for the Global AI Economy” and in the paper, we indeed argue for a more comprehensive, multi-stakeholder and supranational charter for the challenges posed by humanity’s collective lack of understanding of this technology. 

KN: What can be done about people or groups lacking moral and ethical boundaries having access to technology that could potentially be used to enhance cognitive and physical abilities – using AI or new biotechnology to create super soldiers, for example? 

Esposito: I think it goes back to the level of education we need to foster, across ages and socio-economic fabrics, about what this technology is, how coding and algorithms work and how technology is much more than an IT department but much less than a deterministic tool for decision making. I think we need to educate to inform people that the aim is not to build future options of super robotized soldiers, but it is more about the use of this technology to address some of our most burning and daunting social issues, such as inequality, homelessness, marginalization, and many others. 

KN: To many observers, it appears that humanity is not ready to cooperatively tackle the challenges and take collective advantage of the opportunities of the 4IR. In your view, what needs to happen for the world to come together and agree on a coordinated approach to navigating our shared future as we experience this period of upheaval?  

Esposito: I have seen enormous progress towards the adoption of the 4IR in many parts of the world, beyond lip service. This level of adoption has rendered me more optimistic than not. That said, more and more coordinated and multilateral efforts to integrate this technology into the lives of citizens, as part of public value and not only private, may be the way to accelerate the race towards an inclusive and healthy manifestation of 4IR. 

Explore more 4IR insights from Thunderbird Knowledge Network: 

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