What exactly is the 4IR?


Last week, Deputy President David Mabuza caused quite a stir, but for all the wrong reasons, when he was quizzed in Parliament about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and nanotechnology and was unable to provide any answers.

Social media was rife with criticism and mockery; Twitter user @DrXiga tweeted: “Deputy president FAILED with distinction to explain to Parliament what is the #4IR.” Another user, @Ntsimbisays, had this to say: “Yoh, that was embarrassing for the deputy president, not knowing what’s 2nd and 3rd Industrial revolution.”

While others on social media defended Mabuza, the fact remains that the vast majority of people do not really know what these terms mean, much less how they are impacting our lives and careers.

Deputy President David Mabuza FAILED with distinction to explain to parliament what is the #4IR that is supposedly upon us as a country. He further went on to say he doesn’t know which Industrial Revolution the country is in😂💀💀💀

— Dr. Mogomotsi Xiga (@DrXiga) October 22, 2019

Yoh, that was embarrassing for the deputy president. Not knowing what’s 2nd and 3rd Industrial revolution. Kubi.. And we say these are our leaders

— Mthimkhulu (@Ntsimbisays) October 22, 2019

At a recent talk at one of the country’s major universities, I asked a group of final-year teaching degree graduates what 4IR was, and no one had a satisfactory answer. I found this very disturbing. If the teachers of the future are clueless, what will be the state of their pupils?

How will learners be equipped to take advantage of the opportunities the 4IR will present, and thereby find success in their careers? How will they be able to innovate if they don’t even know the basics of technology?

Subsequent to the situation in Parliament, I was invited on the Aubrey Masango Show on Radio 702 to explain what the First, Second, Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions were.

The First Industrial Revolution kicked in somewhere around the 1760s when the steam engine was invented. Before that, manufacturing was done by hand by trained craftsmen. The steam engine gave rise to mechanical machines which could replace dozens of people. This led to a completely new way of manufacturing goods, where commodities were made in bulk in factories.

Steam trains gave rise to railroads that carried massive amounts of goods far more quickly and efficiently than ever conceivable by animal power. Steam ships were much faster and more reliable than their wind-powered predecessors.

The combination of new factories and new modes of transport caused a snowball effect on the economy: factories manufactured more goods, which the trains and ships were able to take to more people, requiring even more goods to be manufactured. The late 19th century saw an increase in the world’s population and a massive new demand for commodities. This, along with rising competition, created a need to up-scale manufacturing and to produce more cheaply. The current processes would simply not cut it.

Forced to come up with cheaper and more efficient methods, manufacturers adopted the “assembly line” method of manufacturing, where items passed through a series of steps from one end of a factory to another, with components being added at each step until a finished product emerged at the other end.

This method was perfected by Henry Ford, who was able to shrink the time taken to produce a Model T car from 12 hours to just 93 minutes. This, as well as a completely new phenomenon, electricity, kicked off the Second Industrial Revolution. Electricity wasn’t just a replacement for steam power; it brought about significant advantages over steam power.

Steam-powered factories usually consisted of a single huge engine that ran a number of machines through an often-problematic series of gears, pulleys and belts. This was known as the group-drive system.

The trouble with group drive was that the steam engine was a single point of failure. With electricity, it became possible to implement a unit-drive system where each machine was powered individually with its own electric motor. Fast-forward to the mid 1970s and computers became small and affordable enough so that they could be purchased by homes and businesses, kicking off the digital age, and the Third Industrial Revolution, which continues even today.

Just as the Second Industrial Revolution rose from the first, the Third Industrial Revolution gave birth to two new phenomena in recent times: artificial intelligence and cyber-physical systems. Artificial intelligence is the field of computer science concerned with transferring human intelligence into computers, while cyber-physical systems are ordinary, real-world objects that are given computing power and are able to communicate with each other and with other devices via the internet.

Combining these two technologies gave rise to computers that emerged into the real world and are able to perform tasks that were previously only capable for human beings to do, such as driving cars, flying planes and diagnosing diseases. This phenomenon of computers making their foray into the real world and being able to do more of the things only humans could do before, is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The 4IR is not driven by new and revolutionary technologies, but by technologies that existed previously.

So in essence, it is a continuation of the Third Industrial Revolution.

Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.