Work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)

Thomas Holt Russell
Mar 7 · 7 min read

Klaus Schwab coined the term Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) when he stated in the World Economic Forum:

“The first Industrial revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The second used electric power to create mass production. The third used electronics and information technology automate production. Now a fourth industrial revolution is building on the third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is luring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres. The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. Moreover, these possibilities multiply by emerging technologies breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”

At a meeting for Career and Technical Education (CTE) professionals, a question was posed to members sitting at a roundtable, “What skills should we teach that would best help students for future jobs?” I thought about it for a moment, and then my mind wondered off-track. McDonald’s was slowly adding computers in many of their stores in Colorado Springs. These machines take orders and are relatively easy to use. I have watched the use of these machines grow. People still have the option of using a live person to make orders. Initially, it seemed half of the people were using live cashiers. However, on recent visits, it seemed 90% of the people were using the computer to order food. That is a huge shift.

I wondered how many tellers lost their jobs. Alternatively, maybe McDonald’s cut their cashier positions at such a slow rate that we hardly notice or care when cashiers are no longer around. However, what about jobs that require dexterity and at least a little decision making? Between IoT, robotics and deep learning, it is not far-fetched to believe that very soon, fast food places like McDonald’s will be run 100% by computers and robots. The same thing is happening to Walmart.

When CDs first burst on the scene, they occupied a minimal space in the record shop, maybe a rack or two. However, eventually, the CD started to take up much more real estate. Before we knew it, CDs dominated the shelves and the vinyl albums slowly but surely disappeared to make way for the new technology. Just a few years later, Blockbusters experienced the same thing with DVD taking over real estate once dominated by VHS tapes. We hardly noticed these changes that happened right under our nose.

So, I thought about the question that was posed to us. Most of the input centered around soft skills or professional skills as some call it. This is because no one could come up with the type of jobs that will be available during 4IR; a time when neuroethologies, robots, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, big data, drones, and IoT will be part of our everyday experience. The question that was bouncing off the wall of my brain was, “Are we teaching students for the jobs of the future, or are we teaching them skills for jobs that exist today? Those jobs may not be available soon.

Just as the first three industrial revolutions resulted in job loss, 4IR will also cause jobs to become extinct or on its way to extinction such as television repairmen, switchboard operators, travel agents, film projectionist, bridge toll collectors, farmers, taxi drivers, and the list goes on. As a matter of fact, you would be hard pressed to think of a job that cannot be taken over by technology. Just a few years ago we thought that jobs that required perception, dexterity, and flexibility were exempt from being taken over by computers. However, new technology has been successful in mimicking our human senses and neural network. With deep learning, computers can perceive, learn and perform a complex task.

Another potential stumbling block would be the problem of AI making ethical decisions. Where does the loyalty of a driverless care lay? Is it with its passengers or the pedestrians in the street? Technology systems are biased. The reason for technological bias is that those biases are encoded both consciously and subconsciously. The systems reflect the character of the designers. Ethics have to be embedded in the entire process of application development. This may seem to be obvious, but ethics have never been a barrier to technological development. This is proven by all of the technical advances attributed to war. Fuel burning cars were developed in spite of the pollution it caused, urban development and other pursuits are driven by money and greed conspired to put an end to what we call nature. The purpose of a technological innovation reflects a need, regardless of whether that need is good or evil. Technology is our Frankenstein’s Monster. We are responsible for its creation but have little control over its destructive tendencies.

Some of the changes that we experience in 4IR will be drastic and quick. It is important to consider changing education and start looking more towards the future. We have to be proactive. Our current model of education focuses on the jobs we have today. However, right under our noses, jobs are already being taken over by computers and automation. We are still teaching much the same way that Socrates did. Courses consisting of lectures and examinations need to change and the pedagogical methods we are using need to be examined and change to better prepare students for the future.

Work enables us to grow as human beings; interacting, reaching goals, living in relative comfort. We are connected to each other and society by work. We are still at the beginning of 4IR, but in a short time, we may see significant changes. As work is being digitized, we will become even more alienated. Social media technically brings the average person in contact with potentially millions of people. Being able to reach millions of people by pressing a few buttons was the stuff of science fiction not long ago. The possibilities are unlimited. However, this has somehow made things a little worse. In America, social media is tearing us apart, dividing us to reside in our social blue bubbles, never to mingle with the red bubbles. Technology has turned over a rock, and instead of the creepy crawlers scurrying back to their earthen holes, they are actually coming out and seeking the light. When I think about getting deeper into 4IR while living through a toxic political climate that is tearing down what we used to know as normal, I feel that my grandchildren and my great grandchildren will live in a world that is as different from what we know now, to the difference between now and the eighteenth century.

Eating at a restaurant in Germany is a little different than eating at a restaurant in America. In Germany, if a person is sitting at a table with three empty chairs, that person will be eating with three strangers at his table if that restaurant becomes full. In America, those seats will remain empty until that one-person leaves. I have to admit; it was a little jarring for me when I ate at a German restaurant and ended up joining a family eating diner. I sat at this table of strangers because the table had one empty seat. It was awkward. However, I have to admit, this makes sense to me, even though I am uncomfortable with sitting and eating dinner with strangers there is a certain logic to it that I have to acknowledge and admire.

We may not want to lose our jobs because a company wanted to increase its income chances by being more efficient. However, there is a part of us that can understand the logic if we are honest with ourselves. In a manufacturing plant, with everything connected through the Internet of Things (IoT), the data collected can support the entire production process. Maintenance can be scheduled at the most optimal times, minimizing downtime and malfunctions. Equipment can be improved by studying millions of bytes of data. This improvement in production efficiency due to predictive software is a by-product of the very human need to do things better by going towards the bright light of efficiency. This efficiency will take many people out of the manufacturing process.

Could it be that finally, we will live in a jobless society? That would be interesting. What would we do for money to buy the products that the robots who took our job are making? Would the factories like one big machine, continue to make products until they run out of raw material? Some say the future will hold something we cannot get our head around: Everyone will be on welfare. Every person will receive a universal basic income. The income will be unconditional. This will be an alternative to working as we know it and a by-product of automation in 4IR.

The future of work depends on what we do now. We seem to be developing technology that by its nature is contrary to our well-being. We have to work towards finding a balance between the need for efficiency and money and ensuring we retain the parts of us that make us human. Organizations, politicians, workers, and employers have to come together and start formulating a policy that can help tamper down on the technology that will ultimately ruin our society. There is no time to waste.

Thomas Holt Russell

Written by

Teacher, writer, photographer and modern day Luddite.

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