Day 3, Wednesday, 20 January 2016

“History will judge 2016 as the inflection point in the rise of technology”.

The central theme of this year’s annual meeting is the fourth Industrial Revolution. Professor Schwab, the man behind the World Economic Forum and central to how this amazing organization works, believes that humanity stands on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. He believes in this so strongly that his most recent book and, therefore, the theme of our conclave at Davos, centres on this issue.

Today, I had the rare chance to spend time with this incredible individual and hear his thoughts first-hand on the power of this revolution and the impact it will have on the world around us. To explain the central premise of his theory, we must understand that 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 IT to automate production. And now, the fourth is building on the digital revolution that has been gaining momentum since the middle of the last century. The fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the differences between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

The core of his message to me today was that this new revolution will force us to really think about who we are. ‘With advancing robotics and artificial intelligence, what will be the difference between a human and a robot? It will have greater memory capacity, intelligence, computational power that we can ever imagine. But, can it ever share our ability to love? To form friendships and believe in a transcendental being?’

There were many unanswered questions from the conversation, but two things stood out to me were: first, the way the fourth Revolution will redefine the global manufacturing scenario drastically, impacting national economies, especially in the developing world. With some estimates predicting that this will possibly lead to the loss of 5 million jobs per year, it does bring with it the opportunity for newer business models to develop due to the confluence of science, biology, and technology. It will also lead to the creation of brand new ecosystems such as personal medicine, Artificial Intelligence, and consumer technology.

The second point I took away from this discussion was a question of how this would apply to developing world economies like India. With official statistics pegging more than 30% of our population as living below the poverty line, we have 300 million people living without basic access to food, clothing, and shelter – forget about luxuries such as electricity and technology. For these people, who weren’t included in the second, never mind the third revolution, as defined by Prof Schwab, what is the point of discussing the fourth? Can we leapfrog the previous steps? Is development necessarily a liner progression or can we somehow harness the power of technology and the entrepreneurial energy within our country to create new ecosystems and paradigms to ride this fourth wave? Maybe 2016 will provide the answer to this. Time will tell.

Dr. Marcus Ranney is Vice-President at RoundGlass Partners and a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum. He completed his Bachelors of Science and Medical degrees from University College Medical School in London. He has served as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force and at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for a shuttle mission to the International Space Station. Find him on Twitter at @docmranney.

Posted by The Indian Economist