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Demystifying the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Imagine life without your phone? This is a life without social media, the ability to communicate with other people at the touch of a button and in some instances, inability to do online banking.

Now imagine if in addition to the phone, there was no computer or the internet. Does life seem more bearable without phones and computers or do you shudder at the mere thought of life without these gadgets? To make things even more interesting, let’s imagine life without phones, computers and electricity. Despite how unbearable these conditions might seem, the human race thrived in these conditions. It was through innovation that we have access to the gadgets and amenities that we have today. The people who witnessed the invention of the lightbulb, automobile, telephone and computers were probably in awe and unbelieving of the possibilities that these invention would bring with them. This is the same case when we discuss 4IR in this day and age. We marvel that the likes of IBM have developed an artificial intelligence robot called Ross that is a lawyer. Imagine consulting a robot to handle your legal matters, well, it’s happening and this is a glimpse into what is possible with the 4IR.


Before we demystify the fourth industrial revolution, let’s become acquainted with the meaning of “an industrial revolution”. An industrial revolution is described as the transition to new manufacturing processes. This transition has started to occur between 1760 and 1840 and included a move from manual manufacturing by hand to machine manufacturing, with increased use of steam and waterpower as well as the increased mechanisation of factory systems that used to be operated by people. For example, tasks that were done by hand in a weaver’s cottage, were now mechanised and done in a factory. Mechanisation of the textile industry was one of the major breakthroughs in the first industrial revolution and was made possible through introduction of hydraulic and steam machines in factories. Some economists state that the industrial revolution (also known as the First Industrial Revolution) was the next important event after the domestication of plants and animals. It had enormous benefits for humankind ranging from increased income for households, improved standard of living and an increase in gross domestic product per capita. The population size even increased drastically after the first industrial revolution. More interestingly, industrialisation led to the development of great cities and increased population in urban areas. To put this in context, in 1800, only 3% of Britain’s population lived in urban areas, and today, this figure is 50%!


Now that we know what industrialisation entails, the next question before we tackle Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) should be “what were the second and third industrial revolutions?”. The second industrial revolution occurred between 1870 and 1914 and it was characterised by the emergence of new technological advancements that enabled the breakthrough of new sources of energy such as electricity, gas and oil, the steel industry also rose in this period. The telephone was an invention that also emerged in the second industrial revolution. These technological advancements were made possible by a more effective feedback loop between scientific knowledge (knowledge that seeks to catalogue and explain natural phenomena and regularities) and technology (compilation of recipes, instructions, blueprints etc. which constitute the totality of the techniques available to society). The knowledge which was useful was then used to create new technologies, science was no longer in dusty journals and in universities, it was applied. In turn, technology also made it possible to create innovations which made scientific research easier and more effective. During this revolution, there was the emergence of other innovations such as the automobile and airplane. Ford’s moving assembly line resulted in the birth of mass production.


The third industrial revolution occurred almost a century after the second and it ushered in new forms of energy such as nuclear power. It also saw the emergence of electronics including transistors and microprocessors. Telecommunications and computers also emerged during the third industrial revolution. These new technologies opened the door for production of miniature materials which in turn led to the era of space research and biotechnology (“the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, especially the genetic manipulation of micro-organisms for the production of antibiotics, hormones, etc.”). Interestingly, robots are part of the third industrial revolution, not 4IR as it is widely thought. Industries were able to embark on high levels of automation for production because of robots.


If robots are not the essence of 4IR, then what does 4IR entail? Unlike the previous three revolutions, the origin of 4IR is not the emergence of a new form of energy, it is rather characterised by digitalisation. Some researchers have understood 4IR to be characterised by Cyber Physical Systems (CPS). What this means is that these are the systems or technologies that enable the integration of virtual reality and physical reality. These technologies enable the use virtual reality to control some operations or activities in the physical world. Cyber physical systems are however not part of 4IR, but a small part of it. The drivers of 4IR include the fusion of digital, physical and biological technologies (as described in Table 1 below).

Compared to the Third Industrial Revolution wherein the revolution emerged mostly from hardware, 4IR mostly emerges from the software engineering discipline. Digital power is the main basis of 4IR. As seen in Table 1, digital power includes Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data and Cloud Computing, as well as the Digital Platform.


All this sounds more confusing than demystifying, so let’s break it down: what is the Internet of Things? The Internet of Things is based on the ability to make the things that surround us (phones, laptops, medical equipment etc.) communicate between themselves to achieve a common goal. This includes the integration of identification and tracking technologies (like sensors); communication protocols and intelligence for smart objects. In essence, the IoT can identify a subject, track and monitor it. This enables technologies in homes to create “smart homes”, contribute to environmental protection through smart control of wildfires, perform public security functions by monitoring movement in industry spaces and raising alarms on adverse behaviour, as well as monitoring personal health indicators amongst others (think facial recognition technologies in smart phones and the smart watches that accompany them).

Artificial Intelligence (AI), another component of 4IR, is the simulation of human behaviour and thinking processes which range from studying, reasoning to planning, amongst others. The manufacture of machines or systems that function similarly to a human brain enable us to attain a higher level of application than a machine that is not augmented with AI. These AI technologies started in the 1990s however, they are only gaining rapid adoption and proliferation in recent years.

The common theme in AI is the phrase “machine learning” which entails a computer learning from existing data and finding insights without being programmed beforehand. This ties in with the Second Industrial Learning wherein knowledge and technology were integrated to improve quality of life through more thought-out innovations. In the case of 4IR, however, we are using algorithms and machines for collecting all the available knowledge which may be too much for humans, and generating insights that are beneficial for us. These machines are then able to make decisions that are reliable even when exposed to new data. The applications of machine learning are used in biometric identification, analysis of financial security markets and image recognition with its many applications.

Digital technology also includes Big Data which is generated from a multitude of sources and includes significant volumes of data, it is streamed and comes in various formats. This, however, requires incredible use of hardware storage methods; the advent of Cloud Computing has reduced the need for the amount of hardware required to store Big Data. Amazon is one of the biggest service providers for subscription-oriented services that allow a pay-as-you-go model - used to scale enterprise and application hardware use as the demand and needs peak or trough at certain times.

Digital technology has also given rise to digital platforms. These platforms have changed the way we transact drastically and are powered by technology that supports the on-demand economy, as well as sharing economy principles, which have changed the face of goods’ and services’ consumption by people. As an example, we can cite Uber, the world’s largest taxi company that has no ownership of any vehicles. Facebook - a media company that does not create any content of its own, but rather relies on its vast membership for content creation. Another great example is the Chinese company, Alibaba, which is a giant retailer that does not own any inventory or stock.


I hope that breaking down the elements of 4IR into smaller categories makes it less scary and easier to understand. There are still two more elements of 4IR that need to be discussed - the physical and biological aspects.

The physical technology in 4IR includes self-driving cars and 3D printing. It is hoped that self-driving cars will increase mobility amongst the elderly and disabled, it’ll reduce the number of accidents on the road, reduce the use of petrol which is not good for the environment and result in exponential economic benefits as early as 2030. Additive manufacturing or 3D printing as it’s commonly known involves the use of a digital 3D model or drawing to create a physical object. There are some buildings in the Netherlands that were created purely from 3D printed building materials.

The biological aspect of 4IR involves mainly genetic and neurotechnologies. Human beings are made up of 46 chromosomes and in those chromosomes are genes which determine how we look, our predisposition to diseases or disorders as well as how we tackle illnesses. Scientists took 10 years to sequence the human genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA which includes all its genes. The genome contains all the information necessary to build and maintain the organisms) in order to learn which genes were responsible for speed, illnesses, and resistance to certain conditions amongst other things. The cost of completing this project was 2,7billion USD. The aim was that if the scientists knew the genetic code, it could be used to cure many illnesses and improve the quality of human life. With recent developments in technology, a human genome can be sequenced in just a few hours, for only 1,000 USD. IBM has a supercomputer that is able to create a personalised treatment plan for cancer patients in just a few minutes by using past treatment data, patient’s genetic information and recent medical knowledge. Neurotechnology monitors brain activity and changes therein when exposed to different stimuli. This information can then be used to transfer these animal or human systems to machines. Neurotechnology also enables paralysed patients to control artificial limbs or wheelchairs.

All Industrial Revolutions have one theme in common: there is always an initial fear of “what’ll become of us” with all these new developments, “will people still have jobs or will machines takeover?” To answer this, let’s take a detour to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. His theory states that “Variation is a feature of natural populations and every population produces more progeny than its environment can manage. The consequences of this overproduction is that those individuals with the best genetic fitness for the environment will produce offspring that can more successfully compete in that environment. Thus the subsequent generation will have a higher representation of these offspring and the population will have evolved.” This is essentially survival of the fittest.


A perfect example is the peppered moth. The peppered moth was predominantly white bodied before the industrial revolution. During the industrial revolution, there was so much pollution that the white bodied peppered moth became more susceptible to its predators. Therefore, in order to survive, the moth had to be darker (evolution resulted in the moth undergoing a process of industrial melanism) in order to better camouflage and hide from predators threating its survival. The dark coloured moth population increased and the white bodied moths decreased drastically in numbers. This is a clear illustration of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in recent times.


To survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution, humans must (and will naturally) adapt and embrace the convenience that technology brings.

All the previous industrial revolutions have brought with them an improvement to the quality of life in general and increased economic prosperity. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be no different. With the various programmes we run at GFPA Foundation, we aim to contribute to the teaching of young leaders in the field of STEM. These leaders will embrace technology and 4IR in order to help Africa rise as a continent. Our motto is that we ensure that no girl child is left behind. Women in general are the ones with a very high likelihood of losing their jobs to AI augmented machines. We aim to ensure that as many girls as possible are prepared and can take part successfully in the 4IR.

Kutlwano Hutamo

Founder/CEO Washesha Groceries


Talent Manager Executive for GFPA Foundation

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