Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution

GENEVA – Of the myriad challenges the world faces today, perhaps the most overwhelming is how to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution that began at the turn of the century. New technologies and approaches are merging the physical, digital, and biological worlds in ways that will fundamentally transform humankind. The extent to which that transformation is positive will depend on how we navigate the risks and opportunities that arise along the way.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution builds on the Third Industrial Revolution, also known as the Digital Revolution, which entailed the proliferation of computers and the automation of record keeping; but the new wave of transformation differs from its predecessors in a few key ways. First, innovations can be developed and diffused faster than ever. Second, falling marginal production costs and the rise of platforms that aggregate and concentrate activity in multiple sectors augment returns to scale. Third, this global revolution will affect – and be shaped by – all countries, and have a systems-level impact in many areas.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to empower individuals and communities, as it creates new opportunities for economic, social, and personal development. But it also could lead to the marginalization of some groups, exacerbate inequality, create new security risks, and undermine human relationships.

If we are to seize the opportunities, and avoid the pitfalls, of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must consider carefully the questions that it raises. We must rethink our ideas about economic and social development, value creation, privacy and ownership, and even individual identity. We must address, individually and collectively, moral and ethical issues raised by cutting-edge research in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which will enable significant life extension, designer babies, and memory extraction. And we must adapt to new approaches to meeting people and nurturing relationships.

The scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. The Fourth Industrial Revolution could lead to forms of human augmentation that cause us to question the very nature of human existence – and even sooner than one might imagine.

Consider the impact that mobile technology has already made on our lives and relationships. As the novelty of wearable tech gives way to necessity – and, later, as wearable tech becomes embedded tech – will we be deprived of the chance to pause, reflect, and engage in meaningful, substantive conversations? How will our inner lives and ties to those around us change? These are weighty questions, about which debate will probably intensify in the coming years.

Of course, technology is not an exogenous force over which humans have no control. We are not constrained by a binary choice between acceptance and rejection. Rather, the decisions we make every day as citizens, consumers, and investors guide technological progress. The more we think about those decisions, the more we examine ourselves and the social models on which we depend, the better our chances are of shaping the revolution in a way that advances our common objectives and upholds our values.

In this effort, new forms of collaboration and governance, accompanied by a positive shared narrative, will be essential. To this end, three key steps are needed.

First, we must continue to raise awareness and understanding of the issues at stake. Decision-making cannot occur in isolation. We need an inclusive approach that brings together top minds from all over the world, from both the public and private sectors.

Second, we must develop comprehensive, constructive narratives about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution should develop. For example, we should ensure that values and ethics are at the heart of our individual and collective behaviors, including in capital and financial markets. We must move beyond tolerance and respect to genuine care and compassion, with empowerment and inclusiveness becoming guiding principles of our actions.

Third, we must move to restructure our economic, social, and political systems. It is clear that our current governance structures and dominant models of wealth creation are not equipped to meet current or, more important, future needs. What is needed now is not small-scale adjustments or marginal reforms, but comprehensive and innovative systemic transformation.

How the Fourth Industrial Revolution progresses will come down to people, culture, and values. New technologies, however remarkable they might seem, are fundamentally just tools made by people for people. We must keep this in mind, and ensure that innovation and technology continue to put people first, propelling us toward sustainable and inclusive development.

Once we get there, we can go even further. I firmly believe that the new technology age, if shaped in a responsive and responsible way, could catalyze a new cultural renaissance that will create the sense that we are part of something much larger than ourselves – a true global civilization.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution can compromise humanity’s traditional sources of meaning – work, community, family, and identity – or it can lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a sense of shared destiny. The choice is ours.