As far as revolutions go, the one we are living through now seems quiet. Though its effects are profound and touch everybody, not least during these days of Covid-19, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is enabled by technologies that are based on computing and the internet, which largely do their work in the background of our lives. Main applications include the Internet of Things ("smart" toasters and refrigerators), artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and medicine tailored to an individual's DNA.
Two things are certain: the speed of this revolution is unprecedented, and the impact is relevant to more and more people in increasingly diverse ways. It’s difficult to imagine a world without the Fourth Industrial Revolution's technologies. Yet, as surely as four follows three and five follows four, there will be further industrial revolutions.
Signs of the next one are already emerging, and it is set to be just as life-changing as its predecessors. But to understand what's in store for the Fifth Industrial Revolution, we must first look back at where we have been.
The original Industrial Revolution, beginning in the late 18th century, mechanised industries with steam engines and replaced agricultural societies. Technologies of this period paved the way toward the use of oil and gas in the late 1800s, when the combustion engine appeared, truly driving industries into the Second Industrial Revolution. Aircraft and automobiles were central to this revolution.
The Third Industrial Revolution, beginning in the 1960s, was characterised by computers and electronics. This enabled some of the earliest journeys into space on less computing power than we carry in our hands today. And now here we are, in the midst of the Fourth Revolution.
It is worth noting that the first of the revolutions lasted about 200 years. The second lasted about 100, while the third only about 50. It is easy to see the pattern here.
One trend is particularly important in understanding what comes next: the intimacy of technology. Steam engines were important and impressively large industrial tools; They were housed in massive factories, and hundreds of people laboured around them. Then, with the combustion engine and the telephone of the second revolution, we became closely connected to these technologies and to one another. The third revolution was about miniaturising technology and personal computing. During the fourth, we are hyper-connected through our smart devices to most of the planet.
The Fifth Industrial Revolution will make that connection closer and seamless, and will feel unmediated. The smart device onto which we tap and into which we speak will disappear. Brain-computer interfaces will replace them.
The fifth will stand on the shoulders of the fourth, as technology of diminishing size will be fundamental, and the digital networks will be essential. We are soon finding that the rate at which we type into our smart devices today is a frustrating few bytes at most, while our imagination is orders of magnitude greater.
Can we connect our brains – and our minds – to machines? The short answer is yes, and we have done so for some time. The longer answer is more complicated, but more interesting.
Until a few years ago, machines were connected to the brain and the nervous system principally for medical purposes – for example, to treat Parkinson’s disease or repair spinal cord injuries. Most recently, research has focused on other, non-therapeutic uses, and some of the most high-profile investment in such technology comes from Facebook, Google, Amazon and Elon Musk's Neuralink. This is where the Fifth Industrial Revolution is in the making.
Mr Musk founded Neuralink in 2016. It has since established technologies that can record and stimulate signals from thousands of sites in the brain. Artificial Intelligence is an important component of these achievements and new announcements from Neuralink are expected later in the month. Facebook has recently acquired Ctrl-Labs, a New York-based start-up that had developed a bracelet that detects the intention to move and allows users to manipulate objects on a screen by thought alone. Machine learning is a fundamental ingredient in achieving this.
Bryan Johnson, another tech pioneer, has founded Kernel and recently announced the ability to decode a person’s brain activity and identify the speech or song they are hearing. Mr Johnson aims to usher in a "neuro-quantified era" to characterise thoughts and emotions, both conscious and subconscious. Investors seem to be enthusiastic: they funded Kernel with more than $50 million in early July.
The direction of travel is clear. The science and technology are progressing quickly, for therapeutic and lifestyle or commercial applications. The demand is growing and the underlying Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are going to make this a reality.
We might communicate with others by thought alone, check in at the airport using a mind-reading bracelet, or do our mind-supported shopping – perhaps, for example, to guarantee our safety from infectious viruses. Eventually, regulation will help to make such devices accessible, safe and mainstream. And our use of these technologies will lay the foundations for yet a new revolution. What might the Sixth Industrial Revolution hold?
Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation