Journey to the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Harnessing AI’s Potential

Robert McIntosh

In the last 250 years we have witnessed unparalleled acceleration in technological advancements, with each era marked by transformative industrial revolutions that were powered by groundbreaking innovations. Each marked revolution created a paradigm shift that redirected and forever changed the course of humanity. Each step built upon and transitioned to the next, causing significant shifts in economic structures, cultural norms, and global dynamics.

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention and the first wave of nuclear power. And this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be part of it—we mean to lead it.” –John F. Kennedy

As we begin speaking to the inflection point of AI and what experts are considering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, let us look back at how we got here.

Industrial revolutions as defined by their driving force:

  1. STEAM: The First Industrial Revolution, 1760–1840 (Industry 1.0)
  2. ELECTRICITY: The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870–1914 (Industry 2.0)
  3. ELECTRONICS AND DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY: The Third Industrial Revolution, 1969–2000 (Industry 3.0)
  4. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: The Fourth Industrial Revolution, 2023 (Industry 4.0) 

Dates retrieved from:

Industry 1.0 – Powered by Steam

The First Industrial Revolution, with its start in Britain in the mid to late 18th century, following the “proto-industrialization” period and continuing to the early to mid-19th century, saw the harnessing of steam power, leading to mechanization and automation. Steam engines fueled productivity, revolutionizing textile manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and urbanization—laying the foundation for industrial capitalism. This transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized one provided the first true transformation.

James Watt emerged as one of the greatest inventors of the time, as his steam engine left its mark on various industries from agriculture, mining, textiles, transportation, manufacturing, and more. We saw textile machinery, such as the spinning jenny and power loom, emerge, leading to increased speed, accuracy, and scale in production and allowing more accomplishments in less time.

The first revolution also saw the rise of the telegraph, mechanized agriculture, the factory system, and the mass migration from rural America to cities, as people searched for employment opportunities in factories and mills. This population shift defined the urban landscape.

Industry 2.0 – Humanity Goes Electric

The Second Industrial Revolution, fueled by electricity and mass production techniques in the mid to late 19th and early 20th century, electrified factories, facilitated mass production, and standardized products, catalyzing globalization and the rise of multinational corporations. The widespread adoption of electricity as a power source changed everything. Imagine which technologies would not exist without electrical power.

1879 saw the development of Edison’s incandescent light bulb and his systematic approach to power distribution systems that allowed for electricity in homes, on streets and in factories. What steam did in the 18th century, electricity amplified in the 19th century. Karl Benz gave us the internal combustion engine at this time, as well as creation of the first “practical” automobile in 1885—giving rise to the likes of Ford and Mercedes-Benz. Ford’s invention of the assembly line carved a pathway to the future, propelling manufacturing to unprecedented heights.

The steel industry concurrently went through a notable change, with one main invention by Henry Bessemer in 1856 called, oddly enough, the Bessemer converter. In a process known as again, oddly enough, the Bessemer process, it allowed the production of steel from molten pig iron by blowing air through the iron to remove impurities. This reduced costs and time required to produce steel, making it more affordable and allowing for rapid industrialization.

Andrew Carnegie built his empire on this process and brought us into the modern world of skyscrapers, bridges, railways, ships, automobiles, etc.

Keep in mind other notable mentions during this time included the telephone, sewing machine, radio, dynamite, refrigerated railroad car, motion picture camera, phonograph, and typewriter—just to mention a few.

Research contribution: 8 Groundbreaking Inventions from the Second Industrial Revolution | HISTORY

Industry 3.0 – It’s All Digital

The Third Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution of the latter half of the 20th century, was propelled by computing advancements and the adoption of the Internet. This era transformed commerce and exploded the digital economy through e-commerce and social media, as well as the creation of new industries like software and IT.

The Space Age kicked off the revolution, and nuclear energy played a part as another untapped energy source. The rise of telecommunications, computers, and programmable logic controllers (PLCs), along with robots, ushered in a new age of automation.

The Internet hit inflection, now connecting the world like never before, coupled with automation soaring to new heights. In 1975, Ed Roberts gave us the Altair 8800, considered the first PC and sold as a build your own with an Intel 8080 processor. Altair began the democratization of computing and blew open the doors to an industry that never looked back. Consider just six years earlier, large entities and governments dominated computing. The Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon with the “supercomputer” of the day that, in today’s standards, had the power of a Commodore 64.

Many Millennials and Gen Zers have never known a world prior to the personal computer, Internet, mobile phones, digital cameras, email, ecommerce, GPS systems, or Wi-Fi. Gen Z is considered the first truly “digital native” generation in a ubiquitous digital world.

Cloud computing, blockchain technology, 3D printing, advanced robotics, crowdsourcing, HTML, the IoT, and AI got their roots during this time—setting us up for what is ahead.

Research contribution:

Industry 4.0 – AI Comes to the Fore

Now, standing on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we witness the convergence of digital and physical technologies with artificial intelligence (AI). AI, stemming from machine learning and cognitive computing, promises to revolutionize sectors like healthcare, transportation, finance, manufacturing, defense, and education—augmenting human intelligence with autonomous learning and decision-making abilities.

This flashpoint builds on all the industrial revolutions preceding, yet utilizes the same spirit and ingenuity that drove Watt, Edison, Bessemer, and Bell. New visionary Geoffrey Hinton, “the Godfather of Deep Learning,” has spearheaded the development of deep learning algorithms and neural networks, which in turn has advanced image recognition and natural language processing. Jeff Dean’s contributions to machine learning and work done on Google’s TensorFlow have propelled him to a top computer scientist and Google architect of their open-source machine learning platform.

Augmented reality, virtual reality, and immersive digital experiences have energized the creative juices of the gaming, entertainment, education, and simulation world. The possibilities are mind-blowing, as we see the rise of Oculus, Vive, Valve, and the latest disruptor of all in that space, the Apple Vision Pro.

Unleashing AI’s potential comes with a learning curve. It is our duty as stewards of this new technological breakthrough to address ethical concerns, privacy issues, and algorithmic bias as well as to help upskill workers and attenuate job displacement. The goal is ensuring AI is a positive factor that enhances society and helps foster human potential. We cannot let fear of the unknown halt advancements or bow to the prognosticators of doom that wish to stop the momentum; however, responsible AI must be at the forefront. The problem of the day is not necessarily the data but how the data is governed, integrated, and managed. Training data must be scrutinized at an elevated level, and AI models should be developed to prevent inadvertent discriminatory outcomes.

The industrial revolutions are a showcase of our innovations, resiliency, and adaptability to technological change. As we take this journey together, let us learn from the past and utilize AI’s transformative power to create a better world of sustainability, responsible economic growth that benefits all, and a pathway to righting past wrongs and using natural resources and human ingenuity to provide equity for the masses. The framework and outcome from past revolutions have set the stage for our fourth—but certainly not last—industrial disruption. Interestingly, as the first industrial revolution caused urbanization, the rise of the fourth revolution is beginning to see a shift back to rural America, as those who love the countryside can once again work from where they enjoy living.

Reference research: Fourth Industrial Revolution – Wikipedia

Industry 5.0 – What’s Next?

To conclude, let’s envision the Fifth Industrial Revolution. Some foresee it as a collaborative endeavor, blending the remarkable programming capabilities of machines with the unparalleled problem-solving skills, creativity, social intelligence, and critical thinking of humans. Stay tuned! Our own Helix Center for Applied AI and Robotics is playing a key role in this 4th revolution—visit us online to learn more.

Rob McIntosh is Connection's Director of Segment Marketing, partnering with segment leadership to translate business goals and priorities into a strategy and plan directly impacting revenue, gross profit, and market share. Rob has nearly 3 decades of marketing and sales experience, navigating businesses to scale through effective planning, communications, CRM management and go to market strategy and execution. Since joining Connection in 2018, he has stood up the Connection Podcast Station, launched and e-Sports program and redefined enablement throughout the organization by leading with insight, focusing on impact, and driving sales with more complex solution selling. As a CNXN Helix Center for Applied AI and Robotics member, Rob leads the brand and go to market strategy for the practice.