Jimi Smoot Entrepreneur / Software Engineer

Davos, the fourth industrial revolution, and the future of work

Steam power, electricity, electronics, and now artificial intelligence. Each of these developments impacted humankind so profoundly that it caused an irreversible shift in the progress of production, as though someone hit the fast-forward button on the modern world. After all, historians don’t apply the term industrial revolution lightly.

Many of the world’s brightest and most influential minds just met at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland to discuss the implications of artificial intelligence, which is a major element of what experts are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Though China’s economic problems hijacked a good chunk of the conversation, there was still heated debate about what artificial intelligence means to contemporary society.

In the face of profound changes that extend well beyond the horizons of business, it’s crucial that the influential voices bring the discussion to the mainstream.

How the WEF is expanding the conversation

Klaus Schwab founded the WEF in 1971 under the moniker European Management Forum. It was more of an elite business retreat, an opportunity to discuss management practices and share insights, than a serious attempt at facing down global issues. The sentiment of the meeting began to shift very recently to take on a weightier tone, addressing social issues like climate change and poverty.

This, the 46th WEF at Davos, features an eclectic mix of influential people including:

  • Business leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, Roger Carr, Mary Barra, and Bob Diamond
  • Politicians like John Kerry, Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden, and Justin Trudeau
  • Philanthropists like George Soros and Jack Ma
  • Intellectuals and scientists like Fabiola Gianotti, Joseph Stiglitz, and Elizabeth Blackburn
  • Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Spacey, and Bono

While WEF didn’t dig as deep into AI as initially promised, there’s no doubt that now is the time to really start digging into where we are and where we’re going. Our world is already rapidly changing in favor of automation and more intelligent technology that makes businesses and people more efficient.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to a colorful new wave of technology, from self-driving cars to package delivery drones and from 3D printing to smart houses. Though sidetracked, Davos was set to address the real concerns about the loss of jobs automation and AI will influence.

Job loss has been a major concern throughout every Industrial Revolution we’ve experienced so far. Businesses, the market, and people worked together to meet the evolving business dynamic through urbanization and organization. There’s going to be a transitional period no matter what. The WEF wants us to consider what we can do to ease that transition and put a long-term framework in place.

It’s important to keep having a conversation about how this revolution will initially impact jobs. It’s also important to consider longer term benefits. For one, AI can seriously lower the barriers to entry for small business creation by simplifying processes and lowering costs. The ability to do more with less and create a seamless customer experience leads to more successful business, and successful small businesses are at the forefront of job creation.

Small business, and the future of AI

Henry Ford famously said: Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black. This is the old paradigm (a revolution of its own at the time) where customers fit inside the limited box manufacturers make for them. Thanks to artificial intelligence, we’re shifting away from that mindset.

The first time you bought a VCR, you pulled out a manual, read the instructions, set everything up, chose the tape you wanted, and pressed play. Today, you don’t need to learn a complex new piece of technology. When you want to watch a movie, Netflix offers you a bunch of options they’ve learned you may like based on your prior viewing habits. For the foreseeable future, artificial intelligence is a set of self-learning tools that empower you to be better at whatever it is you want to do.

WEF founder Klaus Schwab talks about this in his new book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Schwab writesthat he wants everyone to together shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.

When it comes to business, tools that learn become more important because large companies can and will invest millions of dollars into analytics that help guide day to day decisions. Conversely, small business, unable to make this investment, will be left behind which will create a gap between the “data rich” and the “data poor”.

The rich, able to process and understand the data and use it to make better decisions will thrive. The poor, left behind by technology, will be limited by their cognitive ability which lacks the ability to hold, process, and recall large detailed datasets.

Thankfully AI (strong or weak) will help to level the playing field. With AI, smaller companies will be able to stay competitive because their tools will learn and optimize just as fast as big companies.

As more processes are automated and technology adapts to us, the conversation around how this will change society should continue. But change is good, and small businesses that learn to adapt to the new world of artificial intelligence will excel.

Tags: Data and Automation

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