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Edge of innovation

The fourth industrial revolution: what does WEF’s Klaus Schwab leave out?

Digital and physical worlds are predicted to become inseparable in the fourth industrial revolution. DNA Films

In April 2000, Bill Joy famously wrote in Wired Magazine:

Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species.

At the time, Joy was an accomplished technologist and chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. Yet he argued passionately that society was in danger of being destroyed by the very technologies scientists and engineers thought could save it.

Nearly 16 years on, Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has just published an equally passionate treatise on the power of emerging technologies. Unlike Joy, he maps out a vastly more optimistic future where technology innovation – and our ability to harness it – becomes a powerhouse for social and economic growth.

Technology as a revolutionizing force for good

Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971 to ‘improve the state of the world.’ World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA

In his new book The Fourth Industrial Revolution – published to coincide with the WEF annual meeting in Davos – Schwab argues that we are at the beginning of a technological revolution that “is fundamentally changing the way we live, work, and relate to one another.”

At the heart of Schwab’s revolution is an accelerating convergence between our increasingly powerful technological capabilities. Autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, gene editing, robotics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things – these and many more emerging trends, he suggests, are arising from an unparalleled melding of physical, biological and digital worlds.

These coalescing capabilities are both transforming and being transformed by society. And it is this tight coupling that, to Schwab, signals a new era of technology innovation. Just as the widespread use of steam, electricity and computers have in the past revolutionized society, so, he argues, will this new wave of technological convergence.

Are we entering a fourth industrial revolution? World Economic Forum. From The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond

Like Joy before him, Schwab is acutely aware of the intimate dynamic between technology and society. And he implies this could be a bloody revolution with massive casualties, if businesses, governments and society more generally don’t learn to master it.

Yet unlike Joy, Schwab – an economist – firmly believes that technology can drive social progress. He has an unerring faith that we can build a better future through technology innovation. As long as we understand the full nature of the opportunities and challenges that face us, the future he envisions is a bright one.

A revolution that could ride off the rails

Schwab’s vision is as broad as it is engaging. Yet I must confess that reading The Fourth Revolution, I could easily imagine many of my colleagues in the world of responsible innovation rolling their eyes.

I’m part of a global community of natural and social scientists, legal, ethical and policy scholars, policymakers, and civil society advocates, that has spent decades studying and acting on the interplay between science, society and emerging technologies. It’s a community that has its roots in the emergence of modern-day science, and influential works like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This field has been deeply influential in helping governments, businesses and others understand and navigate the risks and benefits of technologies that range from genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology to synthetic biology, geoengineering and artificial intelligence. Many of us have been grappling with the challenges of developing complex and evolving technologies within an equally complex and evolving society for much of our professional lives.

Yet Schwab’s book often comes across as blissfully unaware of this provenance. Despite the many international initiatives, journals, conferences, think tanks, books and research programs – too many to list separately – dedicated to the responsible and beneficial development of emerging technologies, The Fourth Industrial Revolution reads as if it were written in a vacuum. The ideas are interesting, and in many cases important – but are rarely informed by current activities or thinking.

In my home institution alone, we have one of two U.S. Centers for Nanotechnology in Society, a top academic think tank on science, policy and outcomes, and a whole school devoted to the future of innovation in society. And there are leading initiatives on science, technology and society in institutes as diverse as Cornell, MIT, the University of Bergen in Norway, the University of Sussex in the U.K., the University of Tsinghua in China, I could go on and on.

More pertinently, perhaps, there are established and emerging approaches to informing the governance and oversight of emerging technologies. Technology assessment, for instance, which represents a whole slew of methodologies for forecasting and responding to emerging opportunities and challenges. Or anticipatory governance – an approach to technology innovation governance that has its roots in the nanotechnology and synthetic biology “revolutions.” Then there’s responsible innovation – a framing for responsible and beneficial technology development that has been widely supported in Europe, but is increasingly forming an international platform for addressing emerging technologies. There are plenty more, including foresighting, scenario planning, real-time technology assessment, socio-technical integration research – it’s a long list.

Little of this is reflected in The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This book could be a primer for thought leaders who show up in Davos – but there’s a lot more to reaching that wonderful future Schwab envisions. World Economic Forum, CC BY-NC-SA

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that my community of researchers and practitioners is not the book’s target audience. Instead, Schwab is writing primarily for business, government and civil society leaders – the folks who fly into Davos for the WEF’s annual conference.

Because of this, the book is worth reading, despite my imagined academic eye-rolling. I would, however, suggest it be read within a much broader context than the one it provides.

This context should include what governments, businesses, civil society and academics are already doing – and have been doing for some time. It should incorporate current tools, thinking and social science on how to navigate the technological future. And it should be cognizant of emerging ideas, such as risk innovation and actionable empathy.

In writing The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab is successfully exposing high-level decision-makers to a world they may not be aware of, but should be – and this is the book’s strength. It’s a relatively quick read at just over 100 pages. Yet within these pages, he paints a picture of a technology future that demands our full attention in the here-and-now.

It’ll take work to attain that rosy future

Here, Schwab’s message is clear – if the future is to be one in which inequalities are reduced, health, well-being and prosperity are increased, and we as a society remain in charge of our destiny, then public and private leaders need to think and act differently now when it comes to the potential and perils of increasingly powerful and fast-moving technologies.

Schwab fleshes this out with three specific challenges:

  • Raise awareness and understanding of the promise and pitfalls of the fourth industrial revolution across all sectors of society.
  • Develop narratives around how stakeholders can shape the revolution for current and future generations.
  • Restructure economic, social and political systems to take full advantage of the opportunities the revolution presents.

These are lofty goals. They certainly make sense in the face of the technological trends Schwab outlines.

Acting on them, though, will require far more than this book provides readers with. Schwab effectively constructs a strong frame in The Fourth Industrial Revolution and begins to block in the canvas. But he leaves it to others to fill in many of the details.

Fortunately, there are many groups and organizations already working on those details. For instance the Consortium on Science, Policy & Outcomes, the Wilson Center Science & Technology Program and Matter (just three groups I’ve worked with in this area – there are many more) are actively bringing academics, civil society, businesses, governments and others together to chart a way forward in today’s increasingly complex technological world.

These and other efforts are building a foundation of responsible innovation around the world.

Yet despite them, and in spite of Schwab’s optimism, Joy’s earlier vision of a socially bankrupt technological future still haunts me. Since penning his article in 2000, the gap between our technological capabilities and our ability to handle them responsibly has continued to widen. Gene editing, autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things and autonomous weapons, for example, are just four of many, many areas where, despite our best efforts, we are way behind the curve in understanding what could go wrong and how to prevent it.

Closing this gap will be crucial as Schwab’s fourth industrial revolution gathers pace. This will require radical new approaches from governments, businesses and others. But it will also depend on new partnerships being forged between experts and organizations that have insight into the complex dynamic between society and technology, and those that call the shots.

It will also depend on ordinary people – those who stand to bear the brunt or reap the rewards of the coming revolution – being included in defining and helping determine how this next industrial revolution plays out.

Schwab is right: the future could be rosy. But if technology is to serve society rather than dominate it, everyone involved, from businesses, governments and academics, to ordinary people, needs to proactively work together to make this so.

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