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We’re thinking about the fourth industrial revolution all wrong

A family stands on an artificial grassland near a construction site of a residential complex, in Hefei
We need to tell ourselves a very different story to help us prepare for a very different future.
This article is more than 2 years old.

When writing any narrative of humanity, it’s impossible to avoid a certain degree of myopia; after all, we’re living within it. Some of the most unexpected cultural shifts seem inevitable with the benefit of hindsight, and noisy random walks can reveal smooth sweeping trends over long enough durations.

In order to construct a view of history unencumbered by the noise of the present, you have to step back from the subject of inquiry. Biographies of the living cannot contemplate the influence of their legacies, and you can’t judge the value of an action until you’ve observed its effect.

For this reason, we should be skeptical of in-progress narratives occurring over long timespans. One such narrative is the so-called fourth industrial revolution.

The family tree of industrial revolutions

The story goes that humanity has industrialized human production through three fundamental shifts, and is presently entering the fourth major era. Those turning points are:

  • The first industrial revolution, which began in 18th century Europe. Workers during this time witnessed a dramatic trend toward urbanization, accompanied by a rise in the iron and textile industries, all driven by the invention of the steam engine.
  • The second industrial revolution occurred in the late 19th century with the rise of steel, oil, and electricity, leading to innovations such as the telephone, the light bulb, and the internal combustion engine.
  • The third industrial revolution was achieved at the end of the 20th century and is characterized by the rise of digital technologies, including the personal computer and the internet.
  • The fourth industrial revolution builds on the most recent “digital revolution,” and is marked by emerging technologies, including robotics, AI, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, connected sensors, 3D printing, and autonomous vehicles. Combined with the communications infrastructure necessary to connect all of humanity to these breakthroughs, the result is the potential for a truly global society.

All tied up with a 300-year-long bow, right? This narrative undeniably fits the facts of history, but it also runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees. It focuses on the minutiae of exciting new technologies—precisely because they are exciting and new—without observing the meaning of the larger trends behind these shifts. 

There’s a similar but distinct view we can take of the history of human production that reveals a different narrative. In this thought experiment, let’s organize eras based not on the “what” of technology, but the “who” of production.

This alternate perspective reveals a story of transition focused on the dehumanization of production. This view could help us understand and react to the trends of today using a familiar narrative arc.

While a different story doesn’t avoid the problem of being constructed from within the history it tells, a less human-centered view of production can bring some different truths into sharper focus and allow us to explore other, more radical possible futures. So, rather than tell a story about human production, let’s look at the history of human consumption.

An alternative view of the industrial revolutions

In this story, the first era is the period of natural production, lasting from the dawn of the human species approximately 300,000 years ago and continuing until approximately 10,000 years in the past. During this period, humans consumed the bounty of nature and were shaped by the natural world.

The second era is the period of sustainable food production, rising with the development of agriculture sometime around 9,000 BC and extending to the middle of the 18th century. In this era, humans and their eventually domesticated animal companions used their physical strength and intellectual skills to create the infrastructure and production necessary to nourish larger, less transient human settlements. Some examples of this era include seasonal farming, irrigation systems, and food-storage facilities.

The third era is the period of industrialized labor, rising with the energy-saving inventions of the 18th century, such as the steam engine and the water-powered spinning frame for textile mills. This fundamentally new era represented the dehumanization of physical strength. After the development of the first machines, systems began outcompeting humans and domesticated animals in every area where brute strength and physical prowess were the critical components of production. The result was that humans had to either compete with machines on price, or switch to new, more intellectual forms of labor in order to produce the goods and services consumed by society.

The fourth era is the period of industrialized intelligence, rising with the mental-energy-saving inventions of the mid-20th century and continuing through today. Much as the industrial revolution dehumanized biological strength with machines, the displacement of biological intelligence with computers represents the dehumanization of intellectual labour.  Projecting current techniques a few years forward suggests that autonomous systems will eventually be capable of outcompeting humans in every area where intelligence is the key component of production.

Since many tasks are a combination of mental and physical labor, the development of this fourth intelligence revolution will also accelerate the physical impact of industrialized labour. This means that the arrival of automated intelligence is likely to be even more disruptive to the existing patterns of society than predicted. Automated intelligence combined with automated physical labor is inevitably more cost-effective than human production, and will leave no segment of production untouched for humans to monopolize.

Leaving behind a legacy

In summary, the era of natural production gave way to the era of sustainable food production, which lead to the era of industrialized labor, which heeded to the era of industrialized intelligence. The transitions between these eras were driven by first inventing production, then automating muscles, then automating brains. The first shift created employment, the second shift transitioned employment to higher-level jobs, and today the third shift is already beginning to impact society and spark debate.

Some people celebrate the ability of new technologies to produce exciting things to consume (not to mention new careers for the people building, maintaining, and applying these technologies). However, the non-human-centered view of human consumption makes it difficult to imagine how future humans will find a niche producing any of the major goods and services that we will consume.

Is dedicating your life to “making a living” really the ultimate good of human existence?

Every time an era progresses, societal roles shift to reflect technological advancement. If we look to the labor force in 1750s England, over one third of people had agriculture jobs; compare this to 2012, when only about 1% were occupied in agriculture. Yet despite less people working in agriculture, we are returning record-breaking yields. We made our physical labor more efficient and a larger percentile of our workforce shifted into mentally intensive work, such as engineering and the sciences.

But what happens when AI makes automated mental labor more efficient? Where do we move once our brains are no longer as competitive with machines? Where do we shift our efforts?

This latest major shift in production might require an equally significant shift in the structure of society. We may need to radically rethink of our assumptions about how to live a meaningful life. Is dedicating your life to “making a living” really the ultimate good of human existence?

We can speculate endlessly about where the fourth industrial revolution will take us—but it’s even difficult to clearly observe what is happening right now. We know we’re in the midst of a technological and societal change, but how can we predict the specifics of the future when we can’t truly understand the present?

We need to change the narrative around the fourth industrial revolution and zoom out to observe larger trends. As humans, we make sense of the world by telling stories about ourselves and our societies. By examining the world through different stories, we can more clearly understand the present and prepare for a very different future.

Perhaps we are not in a fourth industrial revolution that will simply progress the roles of humans in production. Perhaps we are in the final stages of a grand process to create and automate all the tasks necessary to sustain a stable society. Perhaps jobs are not the source of human dignity. Perhaps escape from the burden of labour is not unemployment, but freedom. Perhaps new economic models, like UBI variants, will arise to replace labour income. Perhaps we are not moving into a new era of human industrialization—perhaps we’re on the cusp of the dehumanization of industrialization.

Perhaps it is time to tell ourselves a very different story to help us prepare for a very different future.

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