The author of this book is Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. That is the forum where the movers and shakers of the world meet at the Swiss alpine location of Davos every year to discuss geo-global trends across a range of political, social and economic areas. In this slim book Schwab seeks to predict how impending technological changes will impact on our life; socio, political and economic.
The author argues that the fusing of the political, physical, digital and biological worlds will have a transformative impact on all facets of human existence. This will range from the way we live our lives, the manner in which we will work, the reconfiguration of economic models, the products we sell and even, how long we will choose to live.
The author outlines the drivers of this revolution and cautions the business readers to “get on board” as we are “already reaching an inflection point in [technological] development as they build on and amplify each other in a fusion of technologies”. In an appendix he conveniently lists what are termed 23 “Deep Shift” technologies; those must likely to impact the way we live. This list is headed up by implantable technologies, courtesy of nanotechnological developments; the widespread use of digital currencies such as Bitcoin, driven by Blockchain developments; and the surreal prediction that neurotechnology will allow for humans to have artificial memories implanted in their brains.
Of course, all of the above can not happen without society acquiescing (or one would hope so). The author does discuss how the revolution will throw up challenges on all fronts as to the ethics, morality and legality of many of the putative changes. He warns that society will be in a state of rapid change as the fusion of technologies will create an exponential growth that will make this revolution a much shorter and deeper period of impact that the societal revolutions than mankind has ever before experienced. Throughout the book Schwab posits a benign view on the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He argues that its power can be used for good if harnessed by careful, democratic control by “good leaders” and “decision makers”. Of course the obverse is also a possibility, although the author does not discuss that likelihood.
The challenge to societies’ leaders will be to learn how to harness for good the changes, but controlling and curtailing them when they venture in to possible unethical or illegal terrain (as experienced already with the whole hoovering up of people’s data for selling on to others).
Schwab sets this revolution in a historical context referring to the previous societal upheavals such as the industrial revolution. Each revolution did a lot to transform society, and not always for the better.
The first revolution was 1760-1840 and was triggered by the construction of railroads and development of steam power. It heralded the beginning of the mechanical age. The second started in the late 19th century and was the beginning of mass production, factory workplaces, the production line and mass employment in often poor conditions. The third, and most recent, was caused by the Digital Age. The development of semiconductors, mainframe computing and the emergence of personal computing harnessing the internet.
The author concedes that there are those who argue that what he heralds as a fourth revolution is no more than the outworking of a more advanced part of the third industrial revolution. Schwab holds his ground and says the fourth industrial revolution began in 2000 when technologies began to converge, Artificial Intelligence became a reality and robotics made huge advancements. He also argues that the ubiquity of small, integrated technology available to all at low cost, plus the conquering of the language barrier through the use of machine translation, has made the global market available to all who choose to exploit it.
Disappointingly, for a book that deals with such a diverse range of concepts and technologies, it lacks an index. This was probably the result of the book having been the product of the compiling of a series of papers originally written for other forums. The book is heavy on jargon and management speak.
It is, nonetheless, a slim volume that is fairly accesible to the average reader. Schwab leaves you in no doubt that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is capable of creating a dystopian world of cloud power, AI, implanted brains and robots. The question – which Schwab hints at rather than elucidates on, is whether we as humans should meekly adapt to all technology, or whether as a society we say: “hold on; thus far and no further, thank you.”