According to Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, we “stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another”.

The central premise of his argument holds true: that the world has undergone massive change through a series of industrial revolutions – from the advent of water and steam power to electric power and the rise of electronics and computers. In Schwab’s crowdsourced book, written using concepts from the Third Industrial Revolution, he reasons that the scale, speed and impact of new technologies – built around artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, additive manufacturing and biotechnology – are so profound that in history “there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril”.

Progress in technology has always been linked to improvements in living standards. The original Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) saw significant economic development in the age of mechanisation through steam and water power. It certainly changed the world of work, as labour moved from human- and animal-centred activities to new mechanised devices.

The Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1900) saw improvements in electricity, the internal combustion engine, modern communications, entertainment and using hydrocarbons to power our world. Once again the workforce changed as humans harnessed power at the flick of a switch to mass-produce the artefacts they needed to be more productive and make their lives easier and more comfortable. Certain types of employment disappeared and other flourished.

The Third Industrial Revolution (1960 onwards) revolved around computing and communications technologies. The ability to process and transmit vast amounts of information and communicate from a vehicle heading towards Mars, a vessel submerged at the bottom of the ocean, or really anywhere humanity could reach, meant communication was no longer limited by geographical distances.

In addition, computing power led to complex decisions involving vast sets of data being made in an instant. In the past five decades, the world transformed from what you knew (“knowledge”), to your abilities to obtain and use information using powerful computing and telecommunications devices (“application”). Again employment opportunities shifted and nowhere is this better explained than in Thomas L Friedman’s 2005 bestseller The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

Evolution versus revolution

But do we stand on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or is it nothing more than a technical evolution? Some observers are asking if this will indeed be a revolution as argued by Schwab and others. They argue that many of the technologies central to this supposed revolution are not new, but an evolution of the Third Revolution. They contend that machine learning, AI and robotics are just the pinnacle of information collection, transmission and processing.

Proponents argue that the same relationship exists between the first and second revolutions when mechanisation (first) enabled mass production (second), and mass production and electricity (second) in turn enabled the manufacturing of computers and telecommunications devices (third). Therefore, the foundation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution being rooted in the previous revolution does not disqualify it as a revolution.

This argument about whether the technologies represent a revolution is futile. The real concern is the global focus on technological innovation driven by a desire to find a mystical solution to the economic and related sociopolitical problems confronting humanity. While there are many important problems to be solved via technology, there is an irrational expectation that new technological innovations, on the scale of early revolutions, are imminent. The real revolution is the impact these technological innovations will have on the workforce, economy and society. The real profound change is the structural changes on employment and society after the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

If we are not careful and keep focusing on technology, it could have devastating consequences and lead to greater inequality and economic growth skewed towards the participants, at the expense of the outsiders, unprecedented in human history. It is indeed the start of a revolution of employment, what is considered to be “work” and ensuring that all of humanity benefits from this new revolution. More than any of the previous revolution, this time the impact will be felt in every single type of employment. Just ask taxi drivers, hoteliers, financial analysts and the print media what is happening in their industries.

Although steam, electricity, mass production, telecommunication and computers changed the way we work, and society at large, it is probably true that the new cyber-physical world we are stepping into will see the biggest employment and social revolution yet. It is not a technical evolution.

Martin Butler is head of the MBA programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

This article was paid for by the University of Stellenbosch Business School.