Once again, I didn’t make it to Davos this year. But the gusts from the snow-banked Switzerland streets could be felt all the way to where I’m sitting in New York. Davos refers to what the cognoscenti call the World Economic Forum, a yearly gathering of pols and plutocrats—an influential list of celebrities, wealthy financiers, and leaders of countries and multinational corporations. Some of the attendee names are instantly recognizable: Vladimir V. Putin, Bill Gates, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.
I couldn’t tell you what happens behind closed doors during the mid-January forum, but there are always a lot of open discussions on an array of not-so-light topics, such as balancing the world’s nuclear arsenal, climate change, geopolitics, and the world economy. The conversations provide great fodder for headline writers, as things occasionally go unscripted and often get testy in Davos. This year, the headline we’re mostly interested in has to do with “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
Just when we were beginning to understand the “Internet of Things,” poof, along comes this new revolution. (We hardly knew you, IoT.) But in fact, the IoT is part of a suite of new technologies that includes smart machines, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, material science, nanotechnology, and energy storage. Those technologies will synthesize with new business models to produce a new industrial revolution—an epoch more disruptive than the first three industrial revolutions.
The First Industrial Revolution mechanized production; the second one used electric power for mass production; and the third one used information technology to automate production. This fourth revolution will blur the lines between the physical, the digital, and biological realms.
As for the overall impact of the fourth revolution, opinions vary. Some at Davos worried publicly over the cooling off of the tech boom, as a recent drop in public and private valuations of technology firms suggests. But the evangelists look at technology innovation and the emerging revolution as means to secure long-term gains in efficiency and productivity and more effective supply chains, as well as bigger profit potentials. That will impact the workforce in different, if yet undetermined, ways. Certainly, it will usher in an even greater need than we have now for a knowledgeable and informed engineering workforce.
In a recent essay, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to empower individuals and communities, as it creates new opportunities for economic, social, and personal development. But it also could lead to the marginalization of some groups, exacerbate inequality, create new security risks, and undermine human relationships.”
This is a sobering reminder of the heavy weight of responsibility borne on the shoulders of today’s engineers and other technologists who have created this upheaval. The obligation doesn’t stop with building robust new tools and processes. It also includes engaging and working with public and private sectors to manage the technologies.
To that end, Davos served as an appropriate platform to begin the conversation, at least broadly, about the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on economic, social and political systems. While the ensuing debates, probably in less prominent locations, aren’t likely to produce the headlines that Davos does, they are the discussions that will move the world toward a progressive and sustainable future.