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The world at work: are we on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution?

Are we on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution? Before answering the question, it’s worth reminding ourselves of what the first three did. The first brought us steam power and early mechanisation, the second specialisation and mass production and the third revolutionised the work place by introducing computers. The fourth is about the introduction of wireless internet onto the factory floor so that machines can talk to each other and the use of artificial intelligence to allow them to re-configure themselves to produce tailor made products but on a mass production line.

We’ve become accustomed to robots capable of carrying out repetitive tasks reliably and precisely. But now we’re seeing machines that are not just doing things – they are learning and thinking about tasks.

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I remember visiting a chocolate factory as a child and there were people whose job it was to look at all of the Maltesers passing them by and pick out the misshapen ones. I remember thinking that this must have been a particularly mind numbing, but also very difficult job, trying to spot the odd Malteser as they flew past at speed. People needed to do this job because although machines were good at doing repetitive processes they couldn’t spot anomalies. In other words, they weren’t good at thinking or adapting to the unexpected. All that is now changing.

We are starting to see machines that can learn. They can analyse what’s going on in the work place and can recognise a problem and adapt accordingly – for example by slowing down to prevent production backing up or stopping all together.

The prospect of what is becoming known as the Industrial Revolution 4.0 obviously raises the very natural concern of jobs. If machines are getting so clever, where does that leave humans?

If history is a guide, there may be no need to worry. Since weaving machines in the first industrial revolution put thousands of textile workers out of a work, society has found new ways of keeping people gainfully employed while enjoying the boost to economic growth.

In the latest episode of Horizons, it’s a question I put to Siemens CTO, Siegfried Russwurm. He recalled how his mother used to work in a Siemens factory and in 1970 there were around 110 000 of these repetitive jobs in Germany alone, but by 2010 there were only 10 000. As automation came in, jobs were lost in the short term but over the long term many new, and often more interesting, jobs emerged. Siegfried Russwurm suggested that new technology requires new skills and with technology cycles lasting a maximum of five years, we as humans need to continue to learn and adapt to these cycles.

The prospect of Industrial Revolution 4.0 poses both a challenge and opportunity for society. What should we do with the extra capacity that these machines can give us? And can we use the opportunity to create a much more interesting work place for the future where humans get to do things machines can’t do?

All across the world there are big changes in the way we produce things – new ideas, new techniques and new technologies that are revolutionising the manufacturing process. These changes won’t only affect large industrial companies but will change the nature of our economies and alter consumer behaviour the world over.

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