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The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

There have seen interesting discussions on industrialization and economic transformation in Ethiopia and more broadly here on Aiga Forum and elsewhere. This short piece presents a brief discussion on the fourth industrial revolution as a contribution to this area of debate. Industrialization has been responsible for transforming economies and raising standards of living first in the Western world and then spreading across the globe, for the most part in East and South East Asia. The first industrial revolution is thought to have started in England in the 18th century with the use of steam engine and mechanization to operate industries.  The second industrial revolution took off in late 19th century with the invention of the use of electrical power to operate industrial machines along with the re-organization of production in a way that allowed a group of workers to work together at a single production site with better efficiency and productivity. The third industrial revolution in the late 1970s saw computerization, automation and cyber-based information communication which boosted production growth. 

The 2016 World Economic Forum had the fourth industrial revolution as an agenda to sensitize policy-makers on the opportunities and challenges of this coming era. Writing in Foreign Affairs (Dec. 2015) Klaus Schwab (also the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum) had said that the fourth industrial revolution “will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another…the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before”. It will be an era dominated by robotics, 3D printers, speech recognition devices, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, self-flying planes, nano-technologies, and other technological inventions. In terms of impact on daily life, for example, from your place of work, you will be able to use your cellphone device to adjust the thermostat in your house; open or close windows; operate a robot to vacuum your floor; check what is in your fridge and plan for dinner; or open the garage and roll out the robotic snow blower to clear snow.  If you find these examples too simplistic, consider nano-technology products that can be used to clean up hazardous waste, rehabilitate ecosystems, improve the nutritional quality and productivity of crops and regenerate the soil naturally (instead of using chemical fertilizers); or smart robots that perform more complex tasks ranging from running manufacturing plants in their own, performing brain surgery with much more precision to managing the operation of complex infrastructure networks that deliver transportation, energy, water and other critical pubic services.

However, many worry that the technologies of the future could also create more complicated problems related to safety, security, economic and social wellbeing, and other issues. For instance, smart machines could adapt to environmental changes faster than humans, forcing us to do or accept things that we will not be ready for. An army general in control of a weapons system will be refrained from firing a missile without first exploring other options, because he or she knows about the missile’s destructive power including killing people. Robots in control of the same weapons system will not be able to do this, as they have no emotions. Second, historically technologies create more jobs, but the technologies of the future would reduce the need for workers. This may mean mass unemployment, impoverished middle class and political unrest. Third, there will be cyber-attacks. In the example above, a hacker could hack the software controlling the sensors and machines installed in your house to shut off the heating or cooling system, get inside and steal your things or take out your robotic snow blower to a street and play with it, all of which may mean trouble for you. Finally, people who use technologies in their everyday lives will become autonomous and have no longer a desire to interact with other individuals, communities or state agencies, altering human behaviour and ending associational life as we know it.  Governments will have to swiftly adapted to technological changes to institute measures that protect institutions which deliver public goods necessary for ensuring the collective welfare of society. 

Since time immemorial humans have invented technologies that ensured their survival and progress in civilization. Our survival and that of the future generations will be more dependent on managing scarcities including dealing with negative externalities such as the impact of climate change. Under the right policies, the fourth industrial revolution will help find solutions to most of the critical problems that we and future generations face, including managing economic resources efficiently to sustain human welfare.

Ethiopia needs to increase the pace of work on the development of rocket technology and the satellite launch project. By putting satellite on orbit, Ethiopia will join the growing number of African countries (Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco) that have already launched satellites, and move forward to embrace the fourth industrial revolution, an era of cyber-connectivity and “internet of things”. Cell phones have already enabled tens of millions of Ethiopians to leapfrog to mobile technology applications, giving them more autonomy and freedom in many aspects of their lives. The right science and technology policy will allow Ethiopia to leapfrog to the fourth industrial revolution in a similar way.

The year 2017 has so far been a good one for Ethiopia with continued economic growth and positive reviews of the government’s macroeconomic policy, including a push towards industrialization.  If the Revolutionary Democrats had been angry and sad this time last year (in the aftermath of the political crisis), these days they should be beaming with optimism for Ethiopia’s progress towards achieving a middle income country status by 2025.  Ethiopians from all walks of life at home and abroad share this optimism.

 

Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

August 2017


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