Managing risks in a world of converging technology (the fourth industrial revolution)

Finally there’s an answer to the question: What (!!!) is the fourth industrial revolution? (I took a guess [wrongish] in my Nov. 20, 2015 post about a special presentation at the 2016 World Economic Forum’s IdeasLab.)

Andrew Maynard in a Dec. 3, 2015 think piece (also called a ‘thesis’) for Nature Nanotechnology answers the question,

… an approach that focuses on combining technologies such as additive manufacturing, automation, digital services and the Internet of Things, and … is part of a growing movement towards exploiting the convergence between emerging technologies. This technological convergence is increasingly being referred to as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, and like its predecessors, it promises to transform the ways we live and the environments we live in. (While there is no universal agreement on what constitutes an ‘industrial revolution’, proponents of the fourth industrial revolution suggest that the first involved harnessing steam power to mechanize production; the second, the use of electricity in mass production; and the third, the use of electronics and information technology to automate production.)

In anticipation of the the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF), which has the fourth industrial revolution as its theme, Andrew  explains how he sees the situation we are sliding into (from Andrew Maynard’s think piece),

As more people get closer to gaining access to increasingly powerful converging technologies, a complex risk landscape is emerging that lies dangerously far beyond the ken of current regulations and governance frameworks. As a result, we are in danger of creating a global ‘wild west’ of technology innovation, where our good intentions may be among the first casualties.

There are many other examples where converging technologies are increasing the gap between what we can do and our understanding of how to do it responsibly. The convergence between robotics, nanotechnology and cognitive augmentation, for instance, and that between artificial intelligence, gene editing and maker communities both push us into uncertain territory. Yet despite the vulnerabilities inherent with fast-evolving technological capabilities that are tightly coupled, complex and poorly regulated, we lack even the beginnings of national or international conceptual frameworks to think about responsible decision-making and responsive governance.

He also lists some recommendations,

Fostering effective multi-stakeholder dialogues.

Encouraging actionable empathy.

Providing educational opportunities for current and future stakeholders.

Developing next-generation foresight capabilities.

Transforming approaches to risk.

Investing in public–private partnerships.

Andrew concludes with this,

… The good news is that, in fields such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology, we have already begun to develop the skills to do this — albeit in a small way. We now need to learn how to scale up our efforts, so that our convergence in working together to build a better future mirrors the convergence of the technologies that will help achieve this.

It’s always a pleasure to read Andrew’s work as it’s thoughtful. I was surprised (since Andrew is a physicist by training) and happy to see the recommendation for “actionable empathy.”

Although, I don’t always agree with him on this occasion I don’t have any particular disagreements but I think that including a recommendation or two to cover the certainty we will get something wrong and have to work quickly to right things would be a good idea.  I’m thinking primarily of governments which are notoriously slow to respond with legislation for new developments and equally slow to change that legislation when the situation changes.

The technological environment Andrew is describing is dynamic, that is fast-moving and changing at a pace we have yet to properly conceptualize. Governments will need to change so they can respond in an agile fashion. My suggestion is:

Develop policy task forces that can be convened in hours and given the authority to respond to an immediate situation with oversight after the fact

Getting back to Andrew Maynard, you can find his think piece in its entirety via this link and citation,

Navigating the fourth industrial revolution by Andrew D. Maynard. Nature Nanotechnology 10, 1005–1006 (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.286 Published online 03 December 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

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