The Fourth Industrial Revolution is here

A person wrote to me: “You wrote on your blog that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is here but I do not see anything yet? Is it coming soon or already here? Please explain.”

Answer: The fourth Industrial Revolution is HERE and NOW. The reason we called it the fourth because there are three major revolutions happened before it. The first revolution is based on the invention of steam engine technology where the machines can be used in many industries to increase productivity. The second revolution is based on the discovery of electricity that enables the development of large manufacturing industries such as the automobile, oil, gas etc. The third revolution is based on the inventions of electronic components and the computer that enable the development of the hardware and software industries, the mobile communications industry, and the Internet.

However, the fourth revolution is NOT based on new inventions like the first three but the integration of many previous inventions into new innovations (i.e., Robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and biotechnology etc.) It is important to distinguish the difference here. “Invention” is to create something new but “Innovation” is to create values for an existing invention. For example, the microprocessor is an invention but it is just an electronic component on the circuit board. But the application of microprocessor or the “innovation of this invention” has created thousands of products, from the computer to mobile phone and many other products that we are using today.

By connects these innovations wire or wireless via the Internet these new innovations can disrupt current businesses and industries by optimizing productivity and profits for people who can take advantage of them. In other words, the fourth revolution is about the ” APPLICATION” technologies to create more “INNOVATIONS” for the benefit of a few countries, companies, or people who know how to take advantage of this opportunity.

Today every country is being impacted by this revolution. The reason people do not see it because they already use them unconsciously. For example, when you send me an email, you are already using technology, aren’t you? Have you ever asked what happens when more people are using email? What happens to the post office? What happens to people who deliver mail? Today people are using a mobile phone, soon the wired phone will be gone. Have you asked what happens to the people who work on the wired phone industry? Today people are reading online newspapers, watch the news on youtube and share information on Facebook. What will happen to the papered newspapers or magazine industry? Basically, new innovations disrupt industries, businesses, and the lives of people who work there. When you use a computer, a mobile phone, watching the news on YouTube or sharing information on Facebook, you are the “CONSUMERS” of these innovations. Have you ever asked who will benefit from these innovations? I am sure you are familiar with Microsoft, Apple, Facebook or persons named Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg etc.

Not long ago, people took pictures with a film camera but today they are taking pictures with a digital camera or their mobile phone. What happens to people who work in the film industry? Have you seen any camera film on sale lately? They are gone. Today 35% of people in the world are buying things online but soon the number will increase to 60% and more. By that time, many physical stores will disappear. When people are used to purchasing things online, they do not even think about physical stores anymore. What will happen to people who make a living or work in these physical stores? When you are using these products and services, you are the “CUSTOMERS” of these innovations but have you ever asked who will benefit from these innovations? I am sure you hear of Amazon, Alibaba, and Tencent etc.

Today you probably hear about self-driving cars and trucks, these cars and trucks are being tested now and will be on sale soon. It is predicted by 2030, most cars and trucks will be self-driven then what will happen to taxi drivers and truck drivers? Thirty years ago, many manufacturing companies “outsourced” their works to low-labor-cost countries like China, India, Malaysia to keep their cost down and their profits up. Today with innovations like smart robots and 3D printers, many companies “Insourced” their works back home since machine costs are much lower than human costs. It put millions of workers in China, and India into the unemployed list. It is predicted that by 2030, most factories will be using robots and artificial intelligence automation systems. What will happen then?

In this “Technology-driven world”, information is available almost anywhere at almost any time, the computer is everywhere, communication is instantaneous, and storage capacities are infinite. But all of these powerful technologies ONLY BENEFIT those who know how to use them effectively. That is why I believe everybody needs to have the basic knowledge and skills to use these technologies effectively, and every education systems must re-oriented to focus more on science and technology areas to produce technical-skilled graduates.

In this fourth industrial revolution, technology skills are needed just like the traditional skills of the past (Reading, writing, and arithmetic). To prepare students for this opportunity, we need to have a technology-focused curriculum at all levels, from elementary to high school and college and retrained our teachers in these technologies so our students will grow up comfortable with these tools of the technology-driven world. I believe this new curriculum when implemented properly by qualified teachers, includes both teaching the use of these tools and combine with the proper training in ethics, morale, and responsibilities can prepare our next generation for the challenge of the fourth revolution.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

You may like