The Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

It is very telling that when we survey the breadth of literature published in the field of science fiction and fantasy the apocalypse is an increasingly popular topic. Within a recently published anthology — The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 — three of the twenty stories concern the end of the world and the other seventeen depict futures that are far from pleasant. Some of the most interesting ideas from these stories include the invention of a “Relive box” with retinal projections that let us relive any moment from our past, companies that can clone and reproduce deceased loved ones, and implants that allow companies to use an individual human brain for data processing.[1] Do these ideas seem far-fetched? Perhaps, but it was not so long ago that people dreamt of a world in which humans could fly through the sky or access any corner of the world through a global computer networks. The reality is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is dawning and we are currently on the brink of technological inventions that will have profound and incalculable consequences for humanity.

While science-fiction/fantasy are rarely considered predictive genres of literature they do give us some sense of people’s disposition towards the future: about 50% excitement and 50% fear. Let us look at the positives first. Technological breakthroughs from the previous industrial revolutions created a world where humans have the ability to travel across the globe via helicopters and airplanes, communicate across great distances via telephones or (increasingly) apps like Skype and WhatsApp, and access and trade money, information, and material goods through the Internet. All of this has meant unprecedented ability for cross-cultural exchange and international cooperation and the development of countless organizations that work towards improving the quality of human life everywhere. This is the best of what technology has to offer and perhaps another industrial revolution will make some of these goals easier to accomplish.

As a young scientist interested in the field of medicine I already see the positive impact of new technology. Within my laboratory we are currently able to perform many experiments faster and more reliably due to the mechanization of techniques like protein purification or commercialization of services such as DNA sequencing. This increases the speed with which we may invent new cures and eradicate diseases that devastate human life. Within healthcare treatments to target cancer and other diseases are becoming less invasive and more effective thanks to nanotechnology and the use of robots. This is exciting because it means the possibility of longer and improved quality of life.

However, there is another face to every coin and even the moon has a dark side. Although it is a banal remark, not all change is good and we are increasingly anxious that the future may be a place that we do not want to live in. Already the invention and use of drones, particularly in warfare and surveillance, has had terrifying consequences. The same technology that allows families and friends to communicate across the globe and has also contributed in the spread of fear and terrorism as we have seen with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and the recent Paris attacks. Technology increasingly replaces the need for human labour and can continue to exacerbate income inequality, poverty, and societal conflict. There is a large and not unfounded fear that the future will bring fewer job possibilities, less security, and even greater power imbalances on national and international levels.

What does all this mean for humanity? Should we decree that all research into new technology halt immediately? No. Of course not. Such a law is unenforceable and the march of “progress” is (for better or for worse) unstoppable. And, while new inventions may create new issues there are many current global problems that desperately need the intervention of new technology. The most pressing issue that comes to mind is climate change. There is little doubt left that if we do not stop the rising global temperatures there will soon be extreme global consequences. Because it seems unlikely that governments around the world will successfully cap carbon emissions to the necessary levels, we need technology that can geo-engineer large scale climate solutions or make green energy financially preferable to coal and fossil fuels.

This brings me to the most important thing that we can do to manage the risks and reap the rewards of the Fourth Industrial Revolution: measure progress not by economic growth per quarter but by global values of equity, peace, and health. An international effort to control the direction of our development must necessarily include thoughtful and conscientious decision-making that focuses less on money and more on preserving what is essential to human society. We need only to look at Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner to start thinking hard about what it means to be human. If we want the human race to remain relevant for many centuries to come, now is the time for global action that ensures we are the engineers of our destiny rather than victims of a world we created.

[1] Hill, Joe, ed. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Print.