AI Series Part 1: AI and the 4th Industrial Revolution

February 25, 2019
Caroline Sheahan

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning.

They’re a couple of terms being thrown around a lot lately especially in the media; ‘Robots are coming to Steal our Jobs’, ‘The 4th Industrial Revolution is here.’ But what do they actually mean? And will all industries become so heavily automated and driven by machines that can think for themselves, that we humans will be made redundant? Before we tackle life’s biggest questions, let’s step back and have a flick through the history books at the previous three industrial revolutions and their fallouts. 

The First Industrial Revolution – Mechanisation and The Steam Engine

Starting in the 1700s, mechanisation and the invention of steam and coal power transformed industries all over the world. Think spinning jerrys in the textile industry, and mechanised seed drills in agriculture. The fact that these industries were now mechanised meant that we could make human labour happen at scale. This revolution in technology also brought about locomotive engines, steam powered boats and trains which changed how we were able to travel and work, and steam powered printing presses which revolutionised education via access to papers and magazines.

The Second Industrial Revolution – Mass Production and Electricity

Fast-forwarding to the mid 1800s and electricity was introduced, bringing about assembly lines and mass production on a scale not seen before it, and giving us technologies like the radio, telegraphs and television and leading to the development of the internal combustion engine.

The Third Industrial Revolution – Automation and Computerisation

Up until the 1940s if you said a computer, you’d be referring to a (usually female) mathematician, a computer, a number cruncher. But the ENIAC in 1946 changed that forever. Then programs were developed to tell these computers what to do via software and if you skip forward a few more decades – we’ve got the internet, mass communication and access to information. Jump forward again and we have the internet of things, where our tablets, phones, watches and technology are collecting and analysing our data in real time.

So the Fourth wave? When is it starting?

The reality is that we’re in the beginnings of the 4th Industrial Revolution i.e. AI – right now. It’s not a new concept though, Artificial Intelligence was actually coined as a term by Professor John McCarthy in 1956. So what does it actually mean? Well in essence, it’s the ability of computers to learn from data, to be intelligent. To relate back to the beginning of the computer revolution where computers needed software and machines to tell them what to do – now they don’t. AI is able to make decisions without additional input or human permission. It can look at the data that it’s drawing from multiple sources simultaneously and predict what we need using algorithms. From there Artificial intelligence also becomes smarter with time, constantly augmenting the knowledge from past experiences and reacting to new information. As Professor Genevieve Bell (Anthropologist and Futurist at ANU) so succinctly put it, “the data drives the decision making.” But the fourth industrial revolution isn’t just AI. It’s a fusion of technologies that’s creating exponential change and acceleration. Technologies like the cloud, big data, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and the internet of things as well as AI – these are what are characterising this next wave in history.

But the robots?

Exciting times huh? But back to worrying about our jobs. The biggest thing we’re forgetting about is the positive impact on jobs that has occurred with each of these revolutions. To use the steam engine as an example, the engine and locomotives’ development proved that with new technology comes new jobs. You needed people to build the trains, to build the tracks, to look at safety and build the infrastructure around the new technology. Think mechanics, engineers, draftsmen and coal miners – all jobs that hadn’t existed, or at least on this scale before the invention of the steam engine.

In the same way, AI will create new jobs (and already is). Machine learning engineers, data scientists, analysts, ethicists, innovation experts, designers and architects are all roles that are emerging as a result of this next revolution. AI will remove some of the more menial tasks that humans have previously had to perform and will need us to keep it in check. We will be responsible for regulating how integrated AI becomes in our lives, for governing data privacy, and the ethics of algorithmic bias.

The 4th Industrial revolution is just the next iteration of what’s happened before. Some jobs will be replaced, but will open the door to new opportunities and AI will help us to perform our current jobs better. The key for us will be to learn from and adapt to this new technological climate.

Make sure you tune in to our next blog, AI Series Part 2 – which will dive into how machines actually learn, predict and create algorithms. Like what you’ve read? Check out more of our Blogs here.

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