What exactly is the Fourth Industrial Revolution — and why should you care?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a way of describing the blurring of boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological worlds. It’s a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), Web3, blockchain, 3D printing, genetic engineering, quantum computing, and other technologies. It’s the collective force behind many products and services that are fast becoming indispensable to modern life. Think GPS systems that suggest the fastest route to a destination, voice-activated virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, personalized Netflix recommendations, and Facebook’s ability to recognize your face and tag you in a friend’s photo.
As a result of this perfect storm of technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live and radically disrupting almost every business sector. It’s all happening at an unprecedented, whirlwind pace (and it’s why Salesforce built Customer 360 to help companies keep up with changing customer expectations).
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Here’s everything you wanted to know about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (but were afraid to ask).
Where did the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” come from?
While the Fourth Industrial Revolution (sometimes called the 4IR or Industry 4.0) is set to change society like never before, it builds on foundations laid by the first three industrial revolutions. The advent of the steam engine in the 18th century led to the first industrial revolution, allowing production to be mechanized for the first time, and driving social change as people became increasingly urbanized.
In the second industrial revolution, electricity and other scientific advancements led to mass production. A third industrial revolution, beginning in the 1950s, saw the emergence of computers and digital technology. This led to the increasing automation of manufacturing and the disruption of industries including banking, energy, and communications.
The person who labeled today’s advances as a new revolution was Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum and author of the book The Fourth Industrial Revolution. In a 2016 article, Schwab wrote that “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.”
He continued: “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.”
It’s not all good news, however. Schwab also suggested the revolution could lead to greater inequality, “particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets.” Furthermore, the job market may become increasingly segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” roles, which could escalate social 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.”
What are the technologies driving change?
The easiest way to understand the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to focus on the technologies driving it. These include the following:
Artificial intelligence (AI)
AI describes computers that can “think” like humans. They can recognize complex patterns, process information, draw conclusions, and make recommendations. AI is used in many ways, from spotting patterns in huge piles of unstructured data to powering the autocorrect on your phone.
Web3 is the third iteration of the internet. Web1 allowed people to access and read information on websites, like Yahoo. In Web2, blogs, wikis, and social media like Twitter and YouTube got introduced, giving people more control over the information they created and shared. In Web3, the decentralized world puts ownership into the hands of the community. Web3 comprises blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies, and token-based economics, like NFTs.
Blockchain is a secure, decentralized, and transparent way of recording and sharing data, with no need to rely on third-party intermediaries. The digital currency Bitcoin is the best known blockchain application. However, the technology can be used in other ways, including making supply chains traceable, securing sensitive medical data anonymously, and combating voter fraud.
Faster computer processing
New computational technologies are making computers smarter. They enable computers to process vast amounts of data faster than ever before, while the advent of the cloud has allowed businesses to safely store and access their information from anywhere with internet access. Quantum computing technologies now in development will eventually make computers millions of times more powerful. These computers will have the potential to supercharge AI, create highly complex data models in seconds, and speed up the discovery of new materials.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)
What’s the difference? VR offers immersive digital experiences (using a VR headset) that simulate the real world, while augmented reality (AR) merges the digital and physical worlds. Examples include L’Oréal’s AI-powered virtual try-on tool, which allows users to digitally experiment with makeup products before buying them, and the Google Translate phone app, which allows users to scan and instantly translate street signs, menus, and other text.
Biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop new technologies and products for a range of uses, including developing new pharmaceuticals and materials, more efficient industrial manufacturing processes, and cleaner, more efficient energy sources. Researchers in Stockholm, for example, are working on what is being touted as the strongest biomaterial ever produced.
Robotics refers to the design, manufacture, and use of robots for personal and commercial use. While we’re yet to see robot assistants in every home, technological advances have made robots increasingly complex and sophisticated. They are used in fields as wide-ranging as manufacturing, health and safety, and human assistance.
The Internet of Things
The IoT describes everyday items — from medical wearables that monitor users’ physical condition, to cars and tracking devices inserted into parcels — connected to the internet and identifiable by other devices. A big plus for businesses is they can collect customer data from constantly connected products, allowing them to better gauge how customers use products and tailor marketing campaigns accordingly. There are also many industrial applications, such as farmers putting IoT sensors into fields to monitor soil attributes and inform decisions such as when to fertilize.
3D printing allows manufacturing businesses to print their own parts, with less tooling, at a lower cost, and faster than via traditional processes. Plus, designs can be customized to ensure a perfect fit.
Innovative materials — including plastics, metal alloys, and biomaterials — promise to shake up sectors including manufacturing, renewable energy, construction, and healthcare.
Energy capture, storage, and transmission represent a growing market sector, spurred by the falling cost of renewable energy technologies and improvements in battery storage capacity.
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How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution affect business?
As these technologies change what’s possible, they’re also transforming customers’ expectations. A 2022 global survey from Salesforce Research reveals that 88% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its product or services — up from 80% in 2020.
With technology enabling businesses to offer greater personalization and more valuable, connected experiences across bricks-and-mortar and online channels, customers already have more options than ever, and they’re not afraid to switch brands for a better experience.
The research shows nearly three quarters of people expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations, and that 71% have switched brands they buy from at least once in the past year.
Among the expectations customers have for the companies they buy from are that the company should “anticipate my needs” (62%) and “always provide personalized offers” (56%). This means businesses must focus more than ever on delivering a customer experience that differentiates them from competitors. Get it wrong and they risk losing more than just the sale, but losing their future business.
Because customers today expect personalized experiences, collecting quality data is more important for businesses than ever. Unfortunately, the research also found that 64% of customers say most companies aren’t transparent about how they use personal information. Nearly 80% are more likely to trust a company with their information if its use were clearly explained.
To keep customers’ loyalty, companies need to not only deliver exceptional sales and service in brick-and-mortar stores and online, but also prove they have customers’ best interests at heart.
“Deploying AI will require a kind of reboot in the way companies think about privacy and security,” Benioff wrote for the World Economic Forum. “AI is fueled by data. The more the machine learns about you, the better it can predict your needs and act on your behalf. But as data becomes the currency of our digital lives, companies must ensure the privacy and security of customer information. And, there is no trust without transparency — companies must give customers clarity on how their personal data is used.”
How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution affect the future of work?
Nowhere is the upheaval of the Fourth Industrial Revolution more likely to be felt than the workplace. As with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will profoundly affect people’s lives as AI and increased automation see many types of jobs disappear. At the same time, entirely new categories of jobs are emerging.
Strategic business and technology advisor Bernard Marr said computers and automation will come “together in an entirely new way, with robotics connected remotely to computer systems equipped with machine-learning algorithms that can learn and control the robotics with very little input from human operators.”
He added, “Industry 4.0 introduces what has been called the ‘smart factory,’ in which cyber-physical systems monitor the physical processes of the factory and make decentralized decisions.”
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution reshapes the future of work, businesses must prepare their people for the new world that lies ahead. This often means an increased focus on continual learning, upskilling to new types of jobs, and a commitment to diversity.
What should businesses do to future-proof their workforces?
Businesses will need to ensure they have the right mix of skills in their workforce to keep pace with changing technology. In the Salesforce State of Marketing report, one in three marketers reported talent gaps as a top challenge. Similarly, 50% or more of service professionals say the 2020 pandemic exposed moderate or greater gaps or shortcomings across a variety of factors, including technology and staff skill sets.. Workers will more than likely need to update their skills, not just once but many times throughout their careers. Many senior executives are already asking how all this will be achieved.
Ebony Beckwith, chief business officer and chief of staff to Benioff, addressed the issue as part of a panel discussion at Dreamforce ’18, where she said businesses and governments need to share responsibility for upskilling workers. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, she said, it will be important to create nontraditional pathways for building skills. One example is Salesforce’s Pathfinder training program, created in 2017 in partnership with Deloitte.
According to Tom Puthiyamadam, transformation consulting leader at PwC, it’s imperative that businesses build their capacity to innovate and be agile. “Think about it as a sort of ‘no-man-or-woman-left-behind’ policy,” he said. “Don’t just hire new talent — because if you don’t create an internal environment where they can thrive, they’ll fail. Instead, build a holistic solution.”
“Companies need to be thinking about enabling their employees to code in new languages, but also to change their mix of soft skills,” added Zvika Krieger, responsible innovation consultant and former co-leader of the World Economic Forum’s Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“As AI begins to impact the workforce and automation replaces some existing skills,” Krieger said, “we’re seeing an increased need for emotional intelligence, creativity, and critical thinking.”
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How do we ensure the Fourth Industrial revolution is good for everyone?
With the Fourth Industrial Revolution presenting both immense opportunities and challenges, it’s up to all of us to work together to ensure it benefits everyone.
Humans must be proactive in shaping this technology and disruption,” said Bernard Marr. “This requires global cooperation and a shared view of how technology is reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and individual lives.”
With businesses at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driving both innovation and social disruption, they must also play a pivotal role in ensuring the needs of all stakeholders are met, and not just those of shareholders.
With fears about job security and how personal data is used creating a crisis in trust, businesses need to demonstrate to consumers their values and intentions are trustworthy. As Nick Davis, co-director of the Human Technology Institute, and Simon Mulcahy, former chief innovation officer at Salesforce, have written, “Solving the dilemma depends on a company’s ability to convince its customer that it’s using technologies in responsible and trustworthy ways that will benefit them.” Benioff has said business is the greatest platform for change, and wrote that every business leader can have a direct role in creating economic opportunity for millions of people by investing in education and training programs for existing and potential talent.”
Pointing to companies such as Dow, IBM, and Siemens, which are already investing in programs to help people to acquire new skills, Benioff called on CEOs to do more to “build the workforce of the future, while bringing along the workforce of today.”
“In the coming decades, we need to establish guardrails that keep the innovations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on a track to benefit all of humanity. We can all individually have a direct role in shaping our future, and creating economic opportunity for millions of people by investing our time and resources in helping others.”