4IR: understanding and fear

Alan Mak MP recently wrote a series of articles on Conservative Home about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which its aficionados dub ‘4IR’.  The excitement and the possibilities echo through the whole piece.  The IT revolution is exciting and inviting of innovation that has transformed life as we could not have imagined not just in my lifetime but the last decade, and the next leap can make new transformations we can barely imagine.

It is a promise of the future but also the reality of the present:  we are deep within the ‘third’ industrial, revolution, the computer revolution, and ‘4IR’ is all that follows or might potential follow from it: beyond apps to artificial intellegence, robots, synthetic biology, ‘the internet of things’, augmented reality, biohacking, and more we cannot yet conceive across the world and beyond it. It is the fusion of technologies: you might say that 4IR geeks must step out from their screens and create real things in the real world.

Is it true that no new thing has been invented since the 1950s- 1960?  Then we saw the first hovercraft, lasers, maglev, the silicon chip – all since has been the improvement of existing technology.  The latest Tesla may be a revolutionary car it is a car, and nothing Henry Ford would not recognise.  Since the IT revolution, innovation has shrunk to the confines of a screen, and has changed the world from there, but it is limited.  The promise off the next stage, this ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is to bring all the strands of technology, from Boulton-Watt to Microsoft. Together to do new things which each alone cannot achieve or even conceive..

We should not however get carried away with imagining that the new age is unimaginable.  It is called the ‘fourth’ revolution after those of steam, of electricity and of computers.  As we saw the previous upheavals, so we see this one, and we can learn not to underestimate it, nor to be afraid of it.

It is no different from the others.  This new revolution is governed by pure Adam Smith logic, as have been the preceding industrial revolutions and all innovations since man first lifted a hunting spear:  if there is incentive for an individual to innovate then he will innovate, in order to make his work less boring or more profitable.

If the system were ever established that takes from a man all that he can produce then there is no incentive to innovate and society ossifies:  Smith identified this deadening factor in the feudal states of his day.  Innovation and the motors of prosperity existed only where a man could earn more by working hard and innovating, and were strongest in America, as land rents were low. In the French countryside a seigneur would take as rent the whole increase in production, and as a result tenant farmers made no innovations, but lived from day to day. It was in the towns, freed of this system, that new machines and techniques were developed, and in Britain both town and country fizzed with innovation, leading to prosperity for all: profit for the innovator and cheaper goods for the customer.

The deathly feudal system is in vogue today: its idea of taking from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, is a cornerstone of Marxism to which Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell are devoted, and a large section of the unthinking population too.

There is fear over the new industrial revolution.  This too is nothing new. The Luddites, Captain Swing, and all machine-breakers did what they did convinced that machines would take their jobs and leave them to starve.  Today, identical fears are heard, and those most vocal about it will tell the world on Twitter and Facebook, while sending out for online pizza.

The lesson of all revolutions in innovation has been that it can produce unexpected prosperity in all society, with new jobs arising where others are lost:  as less work is needed, there is time and energy to do more work, and new prosperity opens up new opportunities.  If a ship once took a year to build from timber and can now be built in two months, then that is not five out of six workers on the scrapheap – it is building six ships in place of one, or building them bigger for new cargoes, or building them of steel.

When robots take jobs, as they will and must, it is to make consumer goods more affordable and industrial processes cheaper, and it creates more jobs, and less backbreaking ones.

Each sudden change produces fear and protest – when the mines closed in the 1980s commentators thought the mining villages lost to poverty forever, but they throve, with more jobs there now than ever before, and jobs that do not involve crawling through a mine in the blackness waiting for a cave-in, and retiring with lung disease.

The future is good.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short

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