The Fourth Industrial Revolution: AI and Automation

Jesse Martin

October, 2017


We are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution; the amalgamation of artificial intelligence and automated machines. This technological advancement has the ability to transform the world. It will affect human labour, ethics, governments, and quality of life. This revolution has the capacity to be constructive or detrimental; it remains ambivalent.

The First Industrial Revolution was mechanization; utilizing water and steam power to increase production. The Second Industrial Revolution began with the assembly line; harnessing the ability of electricity to mass produce all sorts of products. The Third Industrial Revolution exploited recent developments in electronics and information technology; automating production. Today, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by consolidating current automated machines with improved technology and intelligent computer systems.

Creating artificial neural networks that are fed vast amounts of data has enabled these computer systems to conquer complex tasks. While developers are not close to replicating the complexity and multiplicity of the neurons in the human brain, robots do outperform humans when given repetitive tasks.Tech companies have demonstrated that robots can be more efficient than humans in the transportation, medicine, and manufacturing industries, among various others.

Despite the ambiguity surrounding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there are some certainties. Artificial intelligence will create dislocation in the job market.

Every industrial revolution has created dislocation. Dislocation does not necessarily mean net-elimination; intelligent and automated machines will eliminate jobs and possibly entire industries, but it has also been proven that these machines will lead to jobs and industries being created.

Artificial intelligence has already led to increased quality of life, to some extent. Computer systems have created a boon for the service industry, leading to efficiency and more free time for individuals. Booking a flight, ordering food, making a payment, or watching a movie can all be done remotely, and within seconds.

Of course, these improvements are relatively superficial. Artificial intelligence has already and will  advance medicine, improve literacy, and solve some of the most difficult scientific questions. In Japan, a nation with over 20% of its population over 65 years of age, is utilizing ‘carebots’ to keep up with the high demand of elderly care. In developing countries, speech-recognition algorithms will bring the internet to millions of illiterate children and adults.

There are already automated machines in warfare and prototypes of intelligent machines that will dramatically alter war if adopted. For example, the ethics of drones have already been questioned and further automation of military equipment pose extreme danger to civilian life without the proper guidelines. There is still an immense amount of work to be done – including establishing laws and boundaries – to prepare nations for an artificially intelligent world.

While this revolution will affect virtually every aspect of contemporary life, adopting and changing policies can aid countries towards a smooth transition.

States will need to grapple with the potential labour disruption. Researchers project that as much as 47 percent of current employment in the United States will be eliminated in about two decades. Governments will have to enact legislation that protects its citizens from this unemployment.

Policies that have been suggested to include pro-growth legislation that reduce regulations on labour laws. A more radical policy change with increased popularity is universal basic income in order to offset future unemployment rates. Some have even suggested that since robots work they must be taxed as well.There are numerous policies ideas like these, but a combination is likely the most effective.

The ethics of intelligent machines in warfare are also a cause for concern at the global level. States will need to begin considering artificial intelligence’s limitations for military use. The United Nations needs to pass international law urgently because once militaries adopt a technology, it is difficult to dismantle it.

The United Nations should put forth bans and/or an ethics code that intelligent machines must comply with, especially if they are used for military application. Technology-specific bans are the most radical, difficult, and far-reaching.

Although there are over a thousand experts in the field calling for a ban on a military artificial intelligence race, preventing global use of specific technology is almost impossible. A more practical option to stifle dangerous warfare is strict coding rules that all militaries must abide by in their programming, similar to the Geneva Protocol. While this may be the most practical, it will be difficult to enforce due to the complexities of monitoring computer coding. Even the Geneva Protocol has failed to completely enforce its laws as evidenced in April when the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people.

The third major hurdle for legislators is surveillance. This is likely be the most difficult to adopt. While governments believe improving the economy and limiting unethical technology for mutual benefit is positive, reducing their ability to control their citizens is rarely seen in the same light.

Without public condemnation, governments continue to increase surveillance. With the proper values, better artificial intelligence and the adoption of Big Data, societies can be made more transparent. Without public awareness, the opposite will continue.

Ultimately, the way states value their citizens’ quality of life will dictate their transition into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Progressive and developed countries will likely adopt policies that provide all citizens with security in the event of economic disruption, restrict the use of artificial intelligence in war, as well as promote transparency.

The most important lesson to learn from the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that artificial intelligence – more broadly technology – is widely ambivalent. It cannot be stressed enough that it is up citizens to urge their lawmakers to enact policies that promote healthier democracies. This will engender a safer world with a better quality of life – courtesy of artificial intelligence.