Modern human history has witnessed several periods of profound transformation in the way we live, work, and relate to one another. These periods, known as industrial revolutions, are characterized by the emergence and diffusion of new technologies that change the modes and means of production, communication, and consumption, and consequently, reshape our society in various ways.
Mankind has certainly come a long way since the first industrial revolution, which took place from the late 18th to the early 19th century, mainly in Britain, Europe, and North America. It was driven by the invention and improvement of machines that used water and steam power to mechanize production, and the development of new processes for iron making, coal mining, and transportation, such as railways and canals. The first industrial revolution marked a transition from an agrarian and rural society to an industrial and urban one. It significantly increased productivity, output, trade, and population growth.
The second industrial revolution took place from the late 19th to the early 20th century, mainly in Europe, North America, and Japan. It was driven by the invention and improvement of machines that used electricity, oil, and gas to enable mass production, especially in the steel, chemical, and automobile industries. It also involved the development of new technologies for communication, such as telegraphy, telephone, radio, and cinema; and for transportation, such as automobiles, airplanes, and ships. The second industrial revolution marked a transition from an industrial and national society to a technological and global one.
The third industrial revolution took place from the mid-20th to the late 20th century, mainly in North America, Europe, Japan, and other developed regions. It was driven by the invention and improvement of machines that used electronics and information technology to automate production, especially in the computer, software, and telecommunications industries. It also involved the development of new technologies for communication, such as television, the internet, and satellite; and for transportation, such as rockets, spacecraft, and high-speed trains. The third industrial revolution marked a transition from a technological and global society to a digital and networked one.
The fourth industrial revolution is currently underway, from the late 20th century to the present day. Mainly confined to North America, Europe, Asia, and other emerging regions, it is characterized by the convergence of digital, physical, and biological technologies. As founder and CEO of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, recently shared during his meeting with the leadership of the ICPC Challenge Championship held at the company’s headquarters, the scale of the fourth industrial revolution is far beyond our imagination. Driven by the invention and improvement of machines that use artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and biotechnology, it envisions smart and autonomous systems, especially in the fields of finance, health care, education, energy, and transportation. It also involves the development of new technologies for communication, such as 5G, the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain, as well as for transportation, including electric vehicles, drones, and the hyperloop concept, which was popularized by Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
The fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, will have a major impact on the way we live. The time it takes for science to translate into technology is being reduced thanks to the extensive collaboration and communication between enterprises and academia. That is an area highlighted by Ren, “Faster development and better talent will be the basis for countries to prosper. Huawei is willing to work with academia to cultivate outstanding talent in the information domain.” Moreover, the company invests about USD 3 to 5 billion in basic research every year, and supports global competitions in software development, informatics, math, physics, chemistry, biology, and neural networks, inspiring young people to become interested in scientific research and preparing them to lead the future. The resulting new technologies will make our lives easier and more convenient, and transform the way we work. Many jobs that are currently done by humans will be automated, while many new jobs will be created in the ever-expanding list of high-tech fields in development and production today.
The fourth industrial revolution is a time of almost limitless yet unpredictable potential, as Microsoft founder Bill Gates once said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” It is crucial to embrace these changes and ensure that they benefit all of humanity. For instance, AI can be utilized to develop new medical treatments, enhance education, and create novel job opportunities, while robotics can be employed to automate tasks in hazardous or repetitive industries and provide care for the elderly and disabled. Moreover, IoT has the potential to connect billions of devices to the internet, leading to innovative ways to manage energy and transportation, as well as increase the efficiency of businesses.
The fourth industrial revolution has the potential to significantly alleviate many of the world’s most pressing problems, including poverty, hunger, and disease, and, according to Ren, “enable humanity to embark on a road towards affluence.” By working collaboratively, we can ensure that its benefits are shared by all of humanity.