It’s about artificial intelligence, data, and things like quantum computing and nanotechnology. Australian National University’s 3A Institute is creating a new discipline to manage this revolution and its impact on humanity.

Diagrams explaining the fourth industrial revolution, like this one by Christoph Roser, are OK as far as they go. Apart from the term “cyber physical systems”. Ugh. What they mean is that physical systems are becoming digital. Think of the Internet of Things (IoT) supercharged by artificial intelligence (AI).

But according to Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell, these diagrams are missing something rather important: Humans and their social structures.

“Now for those of us who’ve come out of the social sciences and humanities, this is an excellent chart because of the work it does in tidying up history,” Bell said in her lecture at the Trinity Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin in July.

“It doesn’t help if what you want to think about was what else was going on. Each one of those technological transformations was also about profound shifts in cultural practice, social structure, social organisations, profoundly different ideas about citizenship, governance, regulation, ideas of civil and civic society.”

Another problem with this simplistic view is the way the Industry 4.0 folks attach dates to this chart. Steam power and mechanisation in 1760-1820 or so. Mass production from maybe 1870, but the most famous chapter being Henry Ford’s work in 1913. Then computers and automation started being used to manage manufacturing from 1950.

“That time scheme works really well if you’re in the West. It doesn’t hold if you’re in China or India or Latin America or Africa, where most of those things happened in the 20th century, many of them since 1945,” Bell said.

Bell wants to know what we can learn from those first three revolutions. She heads the 3A Institute at the Australian National University, which was launched in September 2017 and is working out how we should respond to, and perhaps even direct, the fourth revolution.

Take the steam engines of the first industrial revolution. They were built by blacksmiths and ironmongers, who knew what they needed to build the engines. But they didn’t know how to shape the industries the engines could power, or how to house them, or about the safety systems they’d need. These and other problems generated the new applied science of engineering. The first school of engineering, the École Polytechnique, was established in Paris in 1794.

The large-scale factories and railway systems of the second industrial revolution needed massive amounts of money. Raising and managing that money literally led to capitalism, and concepts like common stock companies and futures trading. And the first business school with funding from industry.

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