The 4th Industrial Revolution: Promise and Pitfalls


Spending last week in San Francisco for the 2018 World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders and Alumni Annual Summit, I experienced firsthand both the promise and pitfalls of the technologies that together represent the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The technologies themselves are impressive. Augmedix, uses Google Glass, supported by remote human “scribes,” to rehumanize healthcare by reducing the amount of time doctors take to fill in medical reports online. Like many new technologies, Augmedix uses technology to enhance, rather than replace, human skills.

The explorer Mark Pollock, who became the first blind person to race to the South Pole then was paralyzed in a 2010 accident, has been working with UCLA scientists to develop an exoskeleton that has allowed him to walk. It’s a huge step –pun grudgingly acknowledged- in his mission to find a cure for paralysis.

My fellow YGLs journaled in notebooks made by Future Tech Lab from crushed stone and non-toxic resin, with none of the environmental impact of traditional paper: no trees, water, bleach, or toxic chemicals. It didn’t disintegrate when I accidentally spilled a glass of water; it’s tear resistant; and I loved the way my pen moved smoothly across the page.

Some of us spent an afternoon at Singularity University learning about pharmacogenomics, blood tests that can replace amniocentesis, self-driving cars, 3-D printed meat, brain scans to pick up on suicidal tendencies, glowing plants, and computers simulating wind tunnel tests. Then we played a virtual reality crystal-smashing game and looking at paintings through an augmented reality tool that made them look like. But we also thought more seriously about the ethical implications of gene-editing techniques – in terms both of access to those tools to knock out potential illnesses and of the social implications when some people use gene editing to become “more equal than others,” as George Orwell might put it.

And then there are the broader social and ethical implications of the inequalities tech is widening, even as it is doing so much good. Yet, staying in a hotel and meeting at venues in the gritty Tenderloin district, it was impossible to ignore the downside of tech: the immense wealth disparities that accompany the tech industry. Even to someone who lived for over two decades in New York City, which has serious homeless issues, San Francisco’s nexus of homelessness and mental illness was jarring.

Tech has created an estimated 500,000 new jobs in the Bay Area, but only 60,000 new housing units have been built. Its high housing costs have made it one of the 10 least affordable cities in the world. We learned that a family of four making $117,000 a year is at the poverty line in San Francisco.

Debate was raging over Proposition C, which has engaged tech giants like Salesforce founder Marc Benioff (for it) and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (against) in battle over how to solve the homeless problem. The ballot initiative would raise between $250 and $300 million by taxing companies making more than $50 million a year in revenues, and earmark the funds for the homeless. Caught in the middle are public officials who approve of the initiative’s goals but oppose it because it both puts too many constraints on how money would be spent, without proper accountability, metrics and tracking that would make it more successful.

On the way back, I delved into an advance copy of the book, Shaping the Future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, by World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman, Professor Klaus Schwab. “The first challenge is to ensure that the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are distributed fairly,” he wrote, noting that inequality has been rising, as happened during previous industrial revolutions. “The second challenge is to manage the externalities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in terms of the risks and harm that it causes.” And finally, he notes a third challenge: “to ensure that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is human-led and human-centered.”

This year’s YGL summit took place in San Francisco because the World Economic Forum recently opened its Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to focus on these issues.

I’ve spoken a number of times about the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a gray rhino challenge that is hard to ignore, but demanding far greater responses than we have so far mustered. The past week only increased this feeling of urgency.

Michele Wucker

About Author

Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at

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