The fourth industrial revolution, which is transforming the world, unlike previous ones has not emerged from discovery of new forms of energy. It is internet based and rooted in digitalisation.
It is, in effect, an innovation of a virtual world to ease the manner in which the physical world is conducted, bringing fundamental favourable changes to the way of life, previously unknown to man. The impact of it is on all aspects of human existence including economics, government, social set-up and individual lives.
The first industrial revolution that happened around 1765 rode on the invention of the steam engine and mass extraction of coal, hugely transforming mechanisation. With this new form of energy, railroads became a major introduction into human existence and there was advancement in economics and material exchanges as a result.
Nearly a hundred years later, around 1870, the second industrial revolution emerged out of discoveries of oil and gas, as well as electricity as energy sources. The combustion engine, steel works, and chemical synthesis quickly took root. The invention of the telephone revolutionised communication, as did automobile technology, advancing transportation. The invention of the aeroplane at the turn of the century can be attributed to the foundations of this same industrial revolution.
The escalation of inventions in the electronics space, telecommunications and computers around 1969 is assigned as the third industrial revolution by some experts. That era was significant for advances in space research, biotechnology and automation in production and robotics.
These earlier revolutions ran on intense hardware amenities, and in many ways on heavy duty machinery and equipment. Consequently, they were difficult to replicate without heavy investment in similar hardware. Mimicking industries that characterised especially the first and second industrial revolutions was a highly capital intensive venture, and was indeed not managed by many nations, or at least not in a timely fashion.
As a result, their innovators remained in a comfortable lead on the global stage and reaped huge dividends, setting themselves apart and amassing wealth from their labour. Other nations would inevitably always play catch-up and also reap a harvest, but the originators were doubtlessly more generously rewarded.
The foundation of the internet, as we know it today, is placed around 36 years ago, although it is based on works that date before 1983. The world wide web (www) was availed to the public in 1991. Over the years, the internet has become a household “consumable”, available to many all over the world.
It has found its way into humanity’s daily existence through commerce, education and self-improvement, news publications, research, social interaction and friendship, and other aspects of life. While it was previously centralised at access points in computer laboratories, internet access has since been decentralised and conformed to mobile telephone handsets, making it virtually available everywhere.
In a similar manner, all technological advancement that is internet-based is possible for all skilled persons everywhere, globally. It against this open availability that the fourth industrial revolution has taken off, and nations have cashed in to invest massively and benefit their economies.
In a way, the internet has worked towards leveling the commercial playing ground among leading economies that have the resources to take advantage of current advances in technology and innovate their way into economic excellence.
This tendency towards equal opportunity will likely result in a “technology race” and cause veiled trade tensions, sabotage and other undesirable effects. Beyond commerce, the winners would have other advantages in areas such as national security. This is therefore a high-premium race.
For instance, there have been reports that current trade tensions between USA and China which have seen the former moving to rein on the extensiveness of Chinese tech giant, Huawei, have considerations of envisaged consequences of 5G network manifesting against an unconstrained Huawei. The ongoing struggles are therefore perceived as a move to prevent a potential Chinese technology leapfrog.
A scenario, as the one above, emanates in significant part, from the fact that no single nation is able to monopolise the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution because it runs on a largely unrestricted internet. As the world dives fully into the 5G realm and other developments that will follow it, there will possibly be more instances of harmful competition of superpowers, to be and remain in the lead.
They might also continually find themselves unsure of the implications of the innovations of their peers on their own wellbeing, intensifying related fights. This may cause unprecedented levels of predatory practices that will harm global harmony around trade and other aspects of life.
Raymond is a Chartered Risk Analyst and risk management consultant