The Revolution has started without us ...

10 Nov 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 16 Nov 2017

Droning on about the future ... Pic Vlad Busuioc, Unsplash

The next industrial revolution is already underway. What used to be in the realm of science fiction is becoming scientific fact. 

Today, on the southern side of Korea’s demilitarised zone, border posts are manned by Samsung SRG-A1 robots equipped with two machine guns and a gun with rubber bullets. The manufacturer claims they are more efficient than the humans they replace in this astonishing short advert. 

It is affecting all professions, even one often thought immune: news reporting. Automated narrative writing is a relatively new science. Sophisticated algorithms can create narratives in styles tailored for different audiences. The content is so human-like that a quiz by the New York Times showed that readers could not tell the difference between a story written by a human and one by a robot. The technology is progressing so fast that Kristian Hammond, cofounder of Narrative Science, specialising in the technique, predicts that by the mid-2020s, 90% of news could be generated by an algorithm.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will see the most powerful, fast moving and transformational period of change in human history.   It will change almost everything, creating exciting new possibilities about how we live and work, introduce complex philosophical and ethical challenges we will struggle to resolve, and even challenge what it means to be human.

This could be the most liberating and exciting period in our history. It could be a disaster. It depends upon us. At the moment change is being shaped by technocrats, big business and government. It is time that the Third Sector joined the debate. To date it has been all but silent. Yet if we are to capitalise on the opportunities, the voice of civic society will be critical.

Many charities are currently in survival mode; dependent on diminishing government funding, it is a grim daily battle for most. However, there are so many opportunities appearing as this revolution unfolds – and so much that needs to be said and done to ensure that technology is used for the betterment of all and not the enrichment of the few.

Scope will be running a series of articles on the emerging changes that provide opportunities for the sector and civic society. Opportunities that can be grasped now. But first it is important to look at the scale and scope of what is happening and why organisations that are involved in promoting good causes must be involved in shaping how technology is used.

Klaus Schwab, founder and chief executive of the World Economic Forum (WEF), puts it like this:

“Of the many diverse and fascinating challenges we face today, the most intense and important is how to understand and shape the new technology revolution, which entails nothing less than a transformation of humankind.”

He argues that the only way to ensure that the changes are to our benefit will be for all stakeholders - governments, business, academia, and civil society – to work together to that aim.  Schwab is correct, but the solution cannot be left to the tiny elite that attend his Davros summits.

Many people throw around the phrase Fourth Industrial Revolution without fully understanding what it means – and why it differs from its predecessors.

To reprise: the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and early 19th Century saw the introduction of powered machines, factories and mass production. The Second Industrial Revolution which spanned the closing years of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th brought us electrification, the motor car, the aeroplane and telephony. The Third in the latter part of the 20th Century involved the development of electronics, computers and the internet.

The Fourth builds on the Third. Schwab describes it thus: “It is characterised by a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, by smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and by artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

One of the most obvious effects of this will be increasing automation whereby many people will be replaced by robots in the workplace. Another important aspect will be the pace of change. The spindle, the key technology of the First Industrial Revolution took 120 years to spread out of Europe. In contrast, the internet was everywhere within 10 years.

This is compounded by a convergence of science: for example, medical research is already underway into how body parts might be manufactured using 3D printing technology. A WEF survey of experts revealed that 79% thought this would be possible by 2025. Change is accelerating. The unimaginable is unfolding.

Some argue that new technologies will spawn new jobs and that mass unemployment is not inevitable. After all, before the first Industrial Revolution practically everyone worked on the land.

Yet the new technologies employ far less people. Just compare Detroit in 1990 (then a major centre of traditional industries) with Silicon Valley in 2014. In 1990, the three biggest companies in Detroit had a combined market capitalization of $ 36 billion, revenues of $ 250 billion, and 1.2 million employees. In 2014, the three biggest companies in Silicon Valley had a considerably higher market capitalization ($ 1.09 trillion), generated roughly the same revenues ($ 247 billion), but with about 10 times fewer employees (137,000).

We can add to that present reality the predictions being made by scientists and academics about future automation of roles currently performed by humans. Latest estimates suggest that 47% of jobs in the USA will be capable of automation within 20 years, or sooner.

Whilst many new jobs will be created by new technology and ways of working, rising unemployment seems inevitable if only because of the pace of the change. 

A lot of work has already been done by the private sector on what jobs are likely to be at a premium in the future and which will be carried out by robots. The general picture is that low-skilled work will all but disappear as will some jobs traditionally regarded as high skilled for which robots are better suited: accountancy is one example.

At the same time those in work will require frequent re-training during their working lives to migrate from redundant to productive roles.

These trends alone demand a response from and provide opportunities for the Third Sector. Here are just a few examples that we will explore over the next few weeks.

The prospect of permanent high unemployment raises issues about our current Welfare System and the underlining assumption that underpins it: that everyone should have a job. How should the welfare sector respond to this? Should we be considering universal salaries on the Finnish model?

And what are the implications for training organisations, many of which are run by the Third Sector, how do we re-train workers for a new ever-changing workplace? What are the opportunities here?

Volunteering is a productive option for those either unable to or find work or wishing to learn new skills. How can we get more engaged in this emerging changing landscape and utilise it to the benefit of individuals and clients?

How can the education system be boosted and supplemented so that it is fit for purpose in a world where so many children entering primary school today will end up in jobs that currently do not exist?

There are also huge opportunities in a world where all the rules are changed. Uber is now the world’s biggest taxi firm, yet it owns no cars. Airbnb is the biggest accommodation provider, yet owns no buildings. Both rely on new technology that matches needs with a service, utilising assets, like spare rooms, that people had not realised they had. The same technology could be used to match clients with front line services. It is time that was researched.

Then there is the opportunity for social enterprise and for businesses with a social purpose. Clearly it is wonderful for big business to be able to substitute workers on decent salaries with robots who work for nothing for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Yet who will buy their products if so many people are out of work as a result? The Fourth Industrial Revolution provides a massive challenge to traditional economic models and those organisations that redistribute wealth rather than garner it for a few will be well placed to thrive. So how about some thinking and planning around this exciting challenge?

Then there is the challenge for our cities. Cities are proving to be the drivers for the change, and those with the best infrastructures and environments are doing the best and will continue to thrive. City deals, available in England but currently blocked here by our Department for Communities, are key to that. A great city is one where councils and the private and voluntary sectors are working harmoniously together to create a great place to live and work.

Over and above all this are some of the massive moral and ethical challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is starting to throw up. Challenges which civil society cannot leave to scientists and academics.

Here is just one example. One of the fastest growing areas of human knowledge is of the brain. This is exciting. Two years ago it was announced that a brain implant had been developed that will ultimately combat memory loss by planting new memories in the brain.

This could prove critical in combating dementia. Yet it is also possible to imagine all sorts of morally challenging uses for the technology – in the ethical treatment of some mental health conditions and criminals, even in warfare where soldiers could have memories erased and new ones substituted. Medical science continuously throws up ethical challenges which require broad debate.

Another such area is in genetics, another sphere of rapid development. Through it we will be able to make our progeny more healthy and disease resistant, if we wish. That sounds good. But what about the prospect of ensuring they are good looking, or very athletic? There is an important debate to be had about what the tabloids will inevitably call “designer babies.”

This is even before we begin to consider the deep philosophical implications of living in a world where robots with Artificial Intelligence are more capable and, indeed, intelligent than ourselves.

This subject is vast. It reaches every corner of life and every science. The next few decades could transform everything for the better, or it could plunge us all into deep crisis. Progress cannot be permitted to be the province of global elites. It is time for the Third Sector to bring itself up to speed with the issues, embraces the opportunities and helps to make this benefit us all.




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