The industrial revolution that began in the 1700s has time and again transfigured human society. CNBC informed that the head of technology policy and partnerships at World Economic Forum (WEF), Zvika Krieger, explained that a common theme among each of the industrial revolutions is “the invention of a specific technology that changed society fundamentally.” A ground-breaking transformative phase has been the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is sometimes called the 4IR or Industry 4.0 is in place to change society by building itself on the foundations laid by the “first three industrial revolutions.”
The First Industrial Revolution that started at the end of the 18th Century was driven by the invention of ‘steam engine’ and completely changed how men lived. This phase taught people how machines worked and enabled the growth of factories; whereas the second phase of Industrial Revolution that came almost a century later (by 1800s) put to fore “mass production of steel, oil, and electricity. The light bulb, the telephone, and internal combustion engine were some of the key inventions of this era.” The Third Industrial Revolution (by 1900s) is also known as the “Digital Revolution.” The creation of the internet, semiconductor, and personal computers are a few of the highlights of this phase.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a revolution that is going on right now, have been said to have further ushered modernization by building upon the Third Industrial Revolution. It introduces a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), 3D printing, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies. Several reports have described this revolution as the “blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.” The founder and executive chairman of the WEF, Klaus Schwab authored a book titled “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” and further popularized the term in a meeting of the WEF.
An article of 2016 published a statement of Schwab where he said, “like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world… in the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. Transportation and communication costs will drop, logistics and global supply chains will become more effective, and the cost of trade will diminish, all of which will open new markets and drive economic growth.”
However, like the other phases had negative aspects, for example, poor working conditions, low wages, pollution, child labour, etc, the ongoing stage also has them. Schwab made it clear that the vast growth holds the capacity to unprecedentedly grow inequality amongst humans. He stated that such a step was plausible “particularly in its potential to disrupt labour markets.” Furthermore, the job market may become increasingly segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” roles escalating tension. According to Schwab, “the changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.”
Noting the time as profoundly uncertain and disruptive in the sphere of work amidst the vast technological advancements taking place worldwide, Antonio Guterres warned that “tremendous” labour market disruption lies ahead.
In response to the perils that 4IR might bring, states have put in place various “international and national policy measures to maximize the benefits of and mitigate the threats caused by emerging technologies.” The United Nations have made efforts encouraging dialogue on how AI would possibly transform “the nature of work and the means of warfare, and global arms control regimes.” The G20 Summit taking place in Buenos Aires chose “the future of work as a priority topic.” The summit’s declaration highlighted the “need for coordinated policy responses that would not engender exclusion, social disintegration or backlash.” Nevertheless, global efforts to set AI standards have been derailed by escalating tensions between the US and China. However, it is imperative to notice that more than 20 governments and international organizations, including the US, the EU, and India, have published national AI strategies over the past two years.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution has shaken India by adding to the already unpredictable work atmosphere. “Anxiety about the impact of technology on the world of work is not new. The question of how technology shapes work and labour and how society should shape technology through choices and policies, has always fuelled the intense public debate,” India’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador K Nagaraj Naidu said Thursday.
Moreover, addressing this issue at a high-level plenary meeting to commemorate the 100th year of International Labour Organization (ILO), Naidu remarked that change has always been a character of human civilization and its functioning. It has been a predicament to its development. The changes have been visible from creating fire to preparing for launches to outer space. “However, the fourth industrial revolution characterised by its convergence of the physical, digital, and the biological worlds will add the dimension of unpredictability, because this time around the speed and spread of technological advancement will be unprecedented,” Naidu said.
The changes ushered by 4IR “will be staggering, breath-taking, and inevitable.” These changes will be “mandatory” and not optional for business leaders in particular. “Automation potential must be distinguished from automation adoption. While a high number of tasks might be technically automatable, the adoption of particular technologies will depend on a complex interplay of factors including the cost of labour; levels of education and skilling; legal frameworks for innovation; labour protection policies; the availability of supporting infrastructure; and the social and cultural norms that shape attitudes towards technological change and innovation,” said K Nagaraj Naidu.
To cope up with the challenges of 4IR, the Indian state’s response has been claimed to be one which is “late and fragmented” by a few people. The budget of the financial year 2018-2019 saw double public investment by allocating $480 million for AI and other emerging technologies. In 2018, NITI Aayog brought to light a discussion paper that explained the national AI strategy and several technologies emerging during this period. It also discussed how these pieces of machinery can improve the quality of life of people. “The strategy commits to building a pool of AI talent by drawing on India’s vast engineering and IT workforces” and developing India into a major provider of AI solutions for the developing world. A study conducted by WEF, “Country Readiness for the Future of Production Assessment” to comprehend positioning of countries and how they would seize the changing nature of production revealed that “India performs well across drivers of production such as demand, global trade and investment. It benefits from a growing domestic market supported by a large middle class, increasing global demand for domestic products, increasing foreign direct investment and Greenfield investment and fairly open and non-restrictive trade policies… India has consistently improved its Global Innovation Index (GII) rankings since 2015. It has moved up 5 places since last year to rank 57th out of 126 countries while coming first for ICT service exports. It demonstrates a remarkable innovation capability relative to its GDP per capita and has a high number of science and engineering graduates.”
However, to capitalize on transformative technologies, India could build a vigorous “institutional framework” that would be based on modern technology and an innovative ecosystem. This system would provide training to prepare the workers for the new production system claimed the study by WEF. Moreover, research conducted by OECD in 2015 claims that the “research and development” funding of Indian GDP was only 0.85%. A comparative study revealed that developed nations spend almost 2-3% of their GDP in this field. WEF claims that “India’s recent initiatives, such as innovation labs and incubation centres across the country, are in the right direction by the government. Such efforts to modernize the manufacturing base must also extend to small and medium-sized companies.”
India has since long enjoyed the low labour rates that have given it an edge. WEF has explained that India should focus on how to train its workforce to keep up with the technological change as it is soon going to “account for over 18% of the global working-age population.” This is speculated to be the scene by 2050. “Government initiatives to develop relevant skills, technical and vocational training programmers, innovative approaches to industrial training, and enhanced public-private collaboration will allow India to reap the benefits of its unique demographic dividend,” claimed WEF. An article by WEF also went to explain that “robust institutional frameworks, from effective contract enforcement to an efficient judiciary, are crucial for this process. India’s government has made strong progress in creating a more business-friendly environment. But it could take further measures to bolster its institutional framework and help its manufacturing sector prepare for the future, such as simplifying bureaucratic procedures and making greater use of digital platforms.”
The Fourth Industrial Revolution by emanating a sense of uncertainty has given rise to worry and excitement, both at the same time, around the globe. Countries have been putting in place measures to handle this revolution that is soon going to take “manufacturing” by storm. The speculated scenario as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution could help India “achieve its dream of emerging as a global power.”A well developed industrial base will accelerate the growth of the nation in this sphere. However, to do so the nation must strive to strengthen the capabilities it holds in this arena and simultaneously tries developing newer ones. “If India responds to the rapid disruptions with a sound and sustainable industrial strategy that balances economic growth and social mobility, it could provide a replicable model for other developing countries around the world” explained WEF. Moreover, WEF’s data has revealed that if India manages to reap the benefits presented in front of it by 4IR, several cities of the nation like Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, etc, would emerge with economies comparable to the economies of various developing nations like Slovakia, Morocco, Philippines, etc., by 2030.
By Sagarika Mukhopadhyay