Individuals, business leaders, governments are responsible for an ethical, inclusive Fourth Industrial Revolution 

The future isn’t a fixed destination. It is a place we are all going to together and we all play a role in drawing the maps that will help us get there safely.

That was underlying message during a 90-minute discussion during May’s Thunderbird Global Speaker Series: How Will AI and Blockchain Change Everything?

Thomas Philbeck and Nicholas Davis, from the World Economic Forum talked about how individuals, organizations, businesses, and governments are responsible for ushering in an ethical, inclusive, and collaborative Fourth Industrial Revolution (or 4IR).

Philbeck and Davis are two of the principle architects of the World Economic Forum (WEF) project on Values, Ethics and Innovation. Thomas Philbeck is Head of Technology, Society and Policy, World Economic Forum. Nicholas Davis is Head of Society and Innovation, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum. Their discussion was moderated by Thunderbird Dean and Director General Sanjeev Khagram, who has spearheaded Thunderbird’s goal of developing global leaders in an age of rapid innovation and change.

Fundamentally different from earlier economic and technological shifts, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries.

“The convergence of new technologies is fantastic but also raises a huge concern around potential negative uses, malicious uses. These can really only be overcome through collaboration and partnership,” Davis told the audience at theBeus Center for Law and Society. The discussion was also streamed and viewed by Thunderbird and ASU students and alumni around the world. 

A World of Opportunities 

German engineer and economist Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, was the first to write about The Fourth Industrial Revolution, an era fundamentally different from earlier industrial revolutions. Even though the previous industrial revolutions liberated humankind from animal power, made mass production possible, and introduced digital capabilities to the world, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is so much more than technology. And just as it is a time of great promise and opportunity, it is also a time of great peril if not managed well.  

Thomas Philbeck explained the significant changes brought about by those earlier eras and how the Fourth Industrial Revolution is different from them: 

  • First Industrial Revolution & Steam Power:We tend to think about this as a step change in power and productivity. We begin to think about the human being as a laborer, a contributor to an economic outcome. 
  • Second Industrial Revolution & Electricity:This introduces mass production and mass consumption, which leads to technical complexity in precision manufacturing, standardization, and certification. We start to think of the human being as a consumer. So now the human being is a laborer-consumer. 
  • Third Industrial Revolution & the Digital Revolution: Starting in the 40s and 50s, we saw a step change in data theory and the power of data. We tried to make machines that made decisions based on the way we thought human beings made decisions. And then we ended up reversing that by the end of the 20thCentury and thinking of human beings as organisms as biological machines. 

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is built on this digital foundation like a digital stack, Philbeck said.  “You have the power and production facilities, you have the electricity grid of the Second Industrial Revolution, you have the digital technologies on top of the electricity grid. And now we’re starting to have these convergent technologies that are merging back into the space.” 

“Just as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a time of great promise and opportunity, it is also a time of great peril if not managed well.”– Click to tweet

This new set of technologies layered on top of the digital revolution promises to help people and organizations do things they couldn’t otherwise do. With the help of AI (artificial intelligence), human abilities are amplified as machines help us process, analyze, and evaluate the abundance of data created today. In theory, opportunities presented through assisted intelligence, augmented intelligence, and autonomous intelligence will allow humans to spend more time engaged in high-level creative thinking and decision-making.

What Does The Future Look Like? 

Some view the changes underway today as simply an extension of the Digital Revolution. But the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a step change in terms of the rate of change and nature of it. The speed and scope of change anticipated over the next few decades is unprecedented. 

Dean Khagram asked the natural next question, “So what dos the future look like?”  

Since Klaus Schwab first introduced the Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2015, many organizations have attempted to predict its impact. Here are a few forecasts:  

  • Thirty-eight percent of American workers may need to change occupations by 2030, according to PwC. That means about 45 million people already in the workforce might need to be retrained over the next 11 years.
  • McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that approximately 50% of the activities people are paid to do, representing $16 trillion in costs to the global economy, can be automated using currently available technology.
  • According to S&P Global, The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Are We Ready?, the world’s aging population means we require as much automation and as many workers as possible in order to meet our future aspirations for economic growth. The challenge is likely to be far less about a lack of jobs for human workers than about how to retrain and redeploy millions of people.

The WEF itself says the real opportunity is to look beyond technology, and find ways to give the greatest number of people the ability to positively impact their families, organizations and communities. And Philbeck and Davis say the future is up to all of us.

“What’s the future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution look like? Well, it’s you who are creating that future.” Click to tweet

“It’s you who are creating the future,” Nicholas Davis said. “What that means is that if you are the one making the decision to develop or build or experiment in those digital systems, you personally need to have a really good minimum viable understanding of how those systems work.”

Cutting Through the Hype and the Fear  

One challenge is to cut through both the hype and fear around emerging technologies, and demystifying topics like artificial intelligence. “Technology is an ever-increasingly sophisticated window to the world, but it is not the world,” Davis said.

He shared several examples how business leaders need to be aware of what technology can and cannot do. “There are some companies out there that can sell you an AI powered hiring system for your HR,” he said. “Most of those systems are highly flawed at the moment because we’re still uncovering and understanding the bias that’s embedded in them.”

One example that Tom Philbeck gave is the information that pilots receive from their instruments when it’s too dark to pick up visual cues about how the plane is flying. Sure, the instruments give pilots a view into the world, but the pilot needs to be aware enough to pick up a dissonance when the instruments aren’t in sync or aren’t reflecting other factors.”  

A healthy and forward-thinking perspective about the Fourth Industrial Revolution is one that recognizes that technology helps us interpret, transform, and understand the world around us, but that people are still in charge.

Globalization, Collaboration, Transdisciplinary Thinking 

“People need to be working together across traditional interdisciplinary boundaries, but also geographical ones,” said Davis, emphasizing the need for collaboration as we search for social and ethical models to guide us in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

Tom Philbeck said that the basic principles people teach their children are good guides for business leaders navigating the future. “My grandfather once told me, ‘Remember, most decisions made after midnight are bad decisions.’ That’s a great principle if you’re thinking about being adaptable and resilient, right in future situations.”

“The basic principles people teach their children are good guides for business leaders navigating the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Click to tweet

Much more productive than trying to forecast or future-proof your future, Philbeck said, is to “think about principles for how should we behave in order to render a future that we want to live in and build that.” 

Davis agreed, “Looking at which technologies are emerging at what rate is not that useful. It’s more a question of how are they being embedded around us and what are the rules and institutions and collaborations being developed on top of that? That gives us a much better idea of whether we should be hopeful and where we might have to manage new risks.”

Both men are hopeful, optimistic. 

Philbeck said he is encouraged that as a society we are having conversations about the ethics of technology. 

And Davis, a father of three children under 6 years old, said is also encouraged because, “I think we’re having a much more normalized conversation about the problematic nature of addiction in technology and our own relationship with devices.”

Both men talked about the personal responsibility shouldered by global leaders as inspiring and incredibly challenging. 

As Davis concluded, “We are literally creating the infrastructure and rules for the next 30 to 40 years.” 

Related insights