I just did quick Google search on my phone. The phone connected me to the Internet, where artificial intelligence algorithms figured out what I was asking, then gave me instant access to data collected from billions of discrete devices and documents.
In a matter of seconds, it offered an answer: by conservative estimates, more than 4 billion other mobile phones are in operation around the globe, more than half of them in the developing world. Another estimate puts the number of internet users at 3.2 billion, more than tripled over the last decade, with most of them entering the web through their phones.
In recent years, there has been increasing discussion of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” most prominently at the World Economic Forum, which brings leaders in industry, government, and academia to Davos, Switzerland, every January to try to peer into the future.
The first three industrial revolutions used technology to transform how humans made products — first with water and steam, then with electric power, then, a generation ago, with computing and automation.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution has several factors that distinguish it from previous industrial revolutions: among them, the breathtaking pace of change around us. But one of the most intriguing elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the way in which we all touch it.
Unlike the technologies that created and then transformed our factories, the technologies that mark this revolution — most notably, artificial intelligence and the collection and analysis of big data – are directly available to, and employed by, individuals around the world. We quite literally hold it in our hands.
Of course, smartphones only scratch the surface of a revolution that defines virtually every part of our lives: the production of our food, the distribution of our water and electricity, the provision of our health care, our economic transactions, our transportation, our entertainment, and more. These technologies pervade our lives in ways that are difficult to fully grasp, and that would be almost impossible to escape, if we ever wanted to. It is a revolution that can be traced directly to a century of unprecedented investment in scientific research, and resulting breakthroughs.
Yet at the very moment that research from disparate fields of study is converging and transforming our world – Science wins! – we watched last weekend as tens of thousands of people around the world took to the streets in demonstrations meant to defend the very concept of science. This is not the first time scientists have gathered to advocate for a political cause, but it is the first such mass movement in which the political cause is science itself.
Commentators on the Fourth Industrial Revolution talk about the ways in which the boundary between technology and humanity is being blurred as it never has before. That is most obviously true in the ways in which humans and their technologies gather, digest, and share information—side by side, and inextricably intertwined. But perhaps it is equally true in the emergence of science and technology at the center of our political debates — not as impartial sources of evidence, but as partisan values, markers of how we identify ourselves as social and civic actors.
Our lives now are supported and propelled as never before by our scientific prowess, and the pace of discovery continues to accelerate, even in the face of crosswinds. But as much as our future is taking shape in laboratories and maker spaces, it is also being shaped by the work now underway at the intersection of technology and humanity, in fields of endeavor that once seemed quite distant from the so-called “hard sciences.”
In design, in psychology, in ethics, in policy, in behavioral economics, even in the arts, the perils of these new technological and scientific capabilities are being identified and illuminated and are, in bits and pieces, being addressed. There too lies the promise of these new powers to enhance human life — because while technology may create its own momentum, it is up to humans to provide its direction.