The technology behind the First Industrial Revolution was water and steam power, which mechanized textile production. The innovation made factories commonplace, which brought more people to cities and caused social upheaval. In the second, electric power made mass production possible. The third was based on semiconductors, which facilitated the data processing that automated production and spawned the digital age.
Now a fourth industrial revolution is taking shape. The technology behind it is the internet of things—networks of connected devices such as sensors, robots, and wearables. The data these devices produce across so many in-depth connections is the fuel for powerful digital applications, from weather prediction systems to smart buildings that regulate their own climates to self-driving cars.
“It’s a fusion of technologies,” says Landry Signé, professor and founding co-director of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Globalization 4.0 Initiative at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. “The fourth industrial revolution blurs the line between the physical, the digital, and the biological.”
This revolution isn’t particularly about the things that collect data. As with the other technological underpinnings in previous upheavals, it’s what we do with them. By using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to analyze data collections, says Andrew Dugan, chief technology officer at technology company Lumen, people can solve harder problems. For example, smart cities can use many types of sensors and other data technologies, with the goal of lowering emissions, reducing traffic, and doing better urban planning. “Just the data that will be available for cities to help manage what’s going on will be a big uplift,” Dugan explains.
This is more than a data-munching exercise. The newfangled hardware and the data it generates are the beginning of the innovation process, not the end result. By building applications that use sensors and other connected technologies as