The new industrial revolution will change everything

Summary: Industrial revolutions reshaped the world. But during the long pause of tech progress since WWII, we forgot what they do to society. Here is a reminder. A timely one, since a new revolution has begun.

“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”
— Treebeard the Ent in Tolkien’s The Return of the King.

4th Industrial Revolution - Dreamstime-115705787
Photo 115705787 © Ievgeniia Ocheretna – Dreamstime.

Technological progress slowed so much after WWII that we no longer remember what rapid change looks like. Compare two lives to see what it was like.

Bat Masterson was born on a farm in 1853, amidst people living hard lives with only simple machines. Women drew water from wells, making them old before their times. He became a gunfighter in the tech boom known as the Wild West. He was a sportswriter for the New York Morning Telegraph when he died in 1921 – in a city of cars, telephones, electricity, and a powerful public health infrastructure. If we transported his mother through the Time Tunnel from her 1853 home to his 1921 home, how quickly could she adapt? Everything would be different, with a thousand advances beyond her imagination.

June Cleaver was a mother in the 1957 sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” If we transported her to a suburban home in 2020, how quickly could she adapt? She would look at the oven, frig, TV, telephone, lights, furnace – all familiar devices. She would be impressed with air conditioning and microwave ovens in a home, but she was familiar with this technology. She would be impressed with our computers, cell phones, rockets, and birth control pills – but all of those were seen in 1957 as likely future tech.

Another example: imagine if we shifted General Pershing one hundred years into the future – from 1918 WWI to command a modern Army division. He would recognize all the major “new” tools: aircraft (fighters and bombers), submarines, rockets, radio, and tanks. But if we shifted the Duke of Wellington from the Battle of Waterloo (1815) to WWI (1917), the Duke would be lost amidst the new tech.

The specific dates of the previous industrial revolution are arbitrary, depending on whether one looks at the laboratory breakthroughs or when engineers build them. Whatever the dates, it reshaped the world.

“The Singularity has happened; we call it ‘the industrial revolution’ or ‘the long nineteenth century.’ It was over by the close of 1918. Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible (even when attempted by geniuses) Check. Massive, profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check. Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check.”

— “The Singularity in Our Past Light-Cone” by Cosma Shalizi (Assoc. Prof of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon).

The revolution gave per capita GDP in the developed nations a boost that lasted through the 1960s. But few noticed its ending. In the 1960s, people believed in a future of rapid technological progress. But all we got was the manned space program (an expensive trip to nowhere) and the supersonic transport (a premature technology) – and radical changes in the narrow fields of communications and computing. So technological progress slowed, as did economic growth.

Now a new revolution might have begun.

Future Industry

What comes next?

The most obvious wave coming is more automation from the combination of semi-intelligent machines, better algorithms, improved cheap sensors, and better manipulators.

Algorithms have already changed the workplace. In the days of yore, for example, every bank had credit officers who personally approved each loan; now algorithms do so faster, better, and cheaper for most consumer loans and mortgages.

As the revolution begins, we have credit cards with chips (replacement for cash), self-driving cars with Star Trek-like sensors and computers, retail kiosks, and facial recognition systems. All have the ability to reshape the workplace. For example, fast-food ordering kiosks provide faster and cheaper service – and customers prefer them.

An industrial revolution differs from the narrow advances in the past few generations by its breath. Drones, solar power, gigabyte broadband, smart machines, 3-D printing, re-usable spaceships – these and a host of other new technologies are already reshaping our world.

Coming are far greater advances, such as guard robots, computer-generated actors and models, sexbots, and wonders as yet seen only in science fiction tales. They will have a Richter 10 impact on society.

“{The arrival of sexbots} will blow up the world. It will make crack cocaine look like decaffeinated coffee.”
— Anonymous (source here).

The pace of progress appears to be accelerating towards greater breakthrough technologies. Here are three candidates from a long list. Only a few need succeed to change everything.

Problems from progress

All this is great news for our descendants, as we move to the wonderful world predicted by Lord Keynes in 1930. Revolutions do not solve problems so much as make them irrelevant. But rapid growth creates its own problems. Look at 1880’s London in this slightly altered quotation from William Manchester’s biography The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory.

“The city itself is overwhelmed, engulfed by changes with which it has not learned to cope, and which are scarcely understood. Some were inherent in the trebling of the population, some consequences of industrialization. Particles of grime from the factory smokestacks produce impenetrable smog which reduces visibility to a few feet. …

“Much of the city stinks. The city’s sewage system is at best inadequate and in the poorer of neighborhoods nonexistent. Buildings elsewhere are often constructed over cesspools which, however, have grown so vast that they form ponds, surrounding homes with moats of effluvia. …

“And the narrow, twisted streets are neither sealed nor asphalted. People lock their windows, even in summer, but they have a lot to keep out: odors, dust. …”

And then there was the manure from the horses (in 1880, NYC had 180 thousand) Nobody saw this coming, and so people had to react instead of prepare. Let’s do better this time.

Among the biggest economic disruptions will be from big companies unable to ride these waves. Such as Xerox – who dominated the copier business and invented most of the key elements of personal computing. Such as Kodak – inventor of the digital camera (1975) and organic LEDs (1987), the one-time leader in digital radiography and blood testing equipment (history here). Such as GE – whose serial screw-ups are legion (e.g., see  “Fast Heat: How Korea Won the Microwave War” by Ira C. Magaziner and Mark Patinkin in the Harvard Business Review, January-February 1989).

The social and political problems from an industrial revolution will be even more difficult for investors to manage. Two can be foreseen. First, the struggle to share the fruits of increased productivity between labor and owners. This can be solved with a little wisdom, but often a little wisdom is more than a people have on tape. Failure at this could make burying gold in the backyard a winning strategy.

Second, coping with widespread unemployment. Many remain in denial about this. In their 2004 book, The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane discuss fields where “computerization should have little effect on the percentage of the workforce engaged in these tasks.” They list truck driving as one such field. Only 16 years later that prediction looks foolish. Imagine what another 16 years will bring. Discussing the coming job apocalypse is beyond the scope of this article. I will write about it if there is any demand.

So far we prepare for these things by closing our eyes. I doubt that will prove successful, and it squanders our lead time.

Conclusions

Risk and reward. Greed and fear. Booms and busts. Industrial revolutions do not change their natures, but make all of these larger. Understanding the economic regime of our time can inform your decision-making in all aspects of life. Understanding the nature of our time brings two other large advantages. First, industrial revolutions are wonderful. Awareness of this big picture is an antidote to the doomsters who can eat away like termites at people’s confidence in the future. Second, awareness of this big picture can help fight the disorientation brought about by rapid change – the foe of clear decision-making.

Just as the date is vague when the previous revolution began, so will the start of the next one. There are no milestones for such things. But if you look for it, you will see the signals.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: “Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about singularities, about robots, how the 3rd industrial revolution has begun, and especially see these…

  1. The robots are coming, bringing hope of a better future.
  2. How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over.
  3. Tech creates a social revolution with unthinkable impacts that we prefer not to see — About sexbots.
  4. Potentially horrific effects of drugs and machines making people smarter & stronger.
  5. The fast rise and fall of two industries show the coming singularity. Let’s prepare now.
  6. Films show us how smart machines will reshape the world.
  7. Machines take another big step to superintelligence.
  8. Prepare for the next singularity. It will change everything.
  9. Let’s prepare now for the job apocalypse.

One of the most interesting books about our future

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
Available at Amazon.

 The Singularity Is Near:
When Humans Transcend Biology
(2005).

By Ray Kurzweil. See his website.

From the publisher …

“At the onset of the twenty-first century, humanity stands on the verge of the most transforming and the most thrilling period in its history. It will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged, as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity.

“For over three decades, the great inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has been one of the most respected and provocative advocates of the role of technology in our future. In his classic The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, he presented the daring argument that with the ever-accelerating rate of technological change, computers would rival the full range of human intelligence at its best. Now, in The Singularity Is Near, he examines the next step in this inexorable evolutionary process: the union of human and machine, in which the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our own creations.

“That merging is the essence of the Singularity, an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today – the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality. We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem.

“While the social and philosophical ramifications of these changes will be profound, and the threats they pose considerable, The Singularity Is Near maintains a radically optimistic view of the future course of human development. As such, it offers a view of the coming age that is both a dramatic culmination of centuries of technological ingenuity and a genuinely inspiring vision of our ultimate destiny.”

17 thoughts on “The new industrial revolution will change everything”

  1. Today’s nitpicks: breath? breadth 4th paragraph “what comes next”; and “But if you looked for it, you will see the signals.” Tense mismatch, perhaps you menat look.

    LK: “Failure at this could make burying gold in the backyard a winning strategy.”

    Or, its opposite. There is a generational change in buying habits. Jewelry, especially diamonds, are not bought as status symbols as in previous generations. Watches have undergone two changes that have severely reduced their worth: cell phones, and changing luxury demand. Add in the effect of internet shopping and a “perfect storm” is sweeping across this sector. Other sectors will be affected in the future by changing structural behaviors.

    LK: “Nobody saw this coming, and so people had to react instead of prepare. Let’s do better this time…

    The only real hope to avoid some of the worst of the coming changes. That and a little bit of wisdom. But, as you point out, it seems wisdom is a bit rare.

  2. Great article again, Larry.

    My single biggest fear is related to the extended lifespan. I understand your argument for the “vital” part of the lifespan and agree with it but I’ve also noticed a distinct hardening of the mental arteries of many of the boomers who once reveled in the thought of constant societal and technical change (about 50+ years ago, of course).

    This problem is not even close to critical yet and can easily be averted if society gives any thought on how to deal with it but I fear that we won’t and will be shocked by what follows.

    On a more positive note, at the rate of expansion in solar and wind capabilities (and our ability to reduce per person electrical consumption via more efficient tools), I’m almost wondering if fusion is necessary.

    I’ve been developing an interest in locally sourced grids of power resources rather than having one major plant that can be a single point of failure. We still need a major plant available to meet emergency needs but it could run at low power quite easily. My understanding of fusion is that the costs and benefits don’t scale that well. It’s all or nothing, at least for now.

    1. Pluto,

      “On a more positive note, at the rate of expansion in solar and wind capabilities”

      I assume you are kidding. At a fantastic cost in subsidies for several decades, wind is 6% and solar is 1.5% of US electrical generation. Both are very expensive when including the subsidies and the cost of back-up power sources.

      “I’ve been developing an interest in locally sourced grids of power resources”

      It works well so long as people are willing to pay the higher cost. Of course, these things are usually sold with lies, so the higher costs come as a surprise. But the people involved cast their checks, so no money was lost (it just changed hands). The big local source is hydropower. However it has high environmental costs, and is more intermittent than often assumed (i.e., during droughts).

      “My understanding of fusion is that the costs and benefits don’t scale that well.”

      Since commercial fusion does not yet exist, that’s an odd statement. It’s also false. Some forms of fusion probably would scale very well. Those using inertial electrostatic confinement (eg, the Polywell) probably would work at many scales. Ditto high beta fusion reactors (eg, Lockheed Martin’s).

    2. I think that fusion power is not “necessary” in the sense that we can have an advanced industrial economy with abundant energy (if perhaps not unlimited energy) for all without it, because nuclear fission still works. The wedding of “we’re against nuclear weapons” and “we’re against pollution” in the 50s/60s is an incubus that haunts us to this day and has probably been the fossil fuels industry’s greatest ally.

      I don’t think anyone has done serious power-grid modelling using fusion power because there isn’t a robust prototype yet (though could be soon) and so they would be pulling it out of their butts, other than a general sort of, “Well, it’d probably be a singular source of power.” Electrons work the same way if they come out of coal generators or nuclear reactors or solar panels.

      1. SF,

        “I think that fusion power is not “necessary” in the sense that we can have an advanced industrial economy with abundant energy”

        If not, we need something. There are almost 8 billion people on this planet. Sometime in the mid-21st C we’ll have ten billion. Perhaps 12 billion. The current power sources can’t run a tech civilization without wrecking the planet.

        “because nuclear fission still works.”

        Considering the number of scary accidents the small number (relatively speaking) of nukes have produced, I doubt that many people are willing to scale up the numbers. Perhaps that would be logical, but there is little evidence that it will happen.

      2. I think you’re right in the expanse of our probable lifetimes, but I think that future generations would probably get over their terror if it was beneficial to them. “So you’re saying the ancients had a way to use uranium metal to generate electrical power, but they stopped using it due to a couple of accidents? Huh.”

        It does have tradeoffs, but fusion probably will too. There is no free lunch, but you can choose your menu.

      3. SF,

        “It does have tradeoffs, but fusion probably will too. There is no free lunch, but you can choose your menu.”

        Oil has trade-offs, but so does burning buffalo dung You are implying an equality among energy sources, which isn’t true. Fusion has the potential to be a far superior energy source than nuclear power – in almost every way. The question is when we master it. Leonardo da Vince described manned flight, but it took a while to master it.

        Whatever the next generation of power sources we use, it will have trade-offs. As will the generation of sources after that. There is no “free lunch” – energy is extracted from the universe by human work and intelligence.

  3. It is only a minority of people who are able to do any kind of skilled work in the knowledge sector, let alone thrive on it. Also it will take a very long time for that Singularity to happen if ever. Imagine that we were talking about flying cars decades ago. However we can make things a little better if we fix the educational system which is way too outdated. Students don’t know shit.

    1. thot patrol,

      (1) “Imagine that we were talking about flying cars decades ago.”

      Did you read the post? Let’s look at the first sentences:

      “Industrial revolutions reshaped the world. But during the long pause of tech progress since WWII, we forgot what they do to society.”

      You appear to have forgotten. Let’s scroll down for details.

      “The revolution gave per capita GDP in the developed nations a boost that lasted through the 1960s. But few noticed its ending. In the 1960s, people believed in a future of rapid technological progress. But all we got was the manned space program (an expensive trip to nowhere) and the supersonic transport (a premature technology) – and radical changes in the narrow fields of communications and computing. So technological progress slowed, as did economic growth. Now a new revolution might have begun.”

      You are saying in effect that progress was slow during the past decade, so it must always be slow. That is exactly the point this post was debunking.

      (2) “It is only a minority of people who are able to do any kind of skilled work in the knowledge sector, let alone thrive on it.”

      How is that relevant to this post?

      (3) “Students don’t know shit.”

      As generalizations go, that’s nuts. Some do, some don’t.

  4. A really great article. How far we have come since 1900 really blows my mind. And the stuff that made it possible, some groups want to keep in the ground.

    In the short term, that won’t be happening here in the States. @Davos:

    “To embrace the possibilities of tomorrow, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse,” Trump said. “They are the errors of yesterday’s fortune tellers and we have them and I have them and they want to see us do badly, but we don’t let that happen.”

  5. My compliments on the podcast with Jasun Horsley. Gracious, courteous, doing your best to keep the conversation meaningful.

  6. Discussing the coming job apocalypse is beyond the scope of this article. I will write about it if there is any demand.

    Yes, this would be very interesting. I’m interested, uncertain, undecided, and not very well informed about it. Like you to begin at the beginning therefore!

  7. Pingback: The new industrial revolution will change everything – Fabius Maximus journal | Prometheism Transhumanism Post Humanism

  8. Summary: Industrial revolutions reshaped the world. But during the long pause of tech progress since WWII, we forgot what they do to society.

    I am not sure there really was a long pause of tech progress since WWII, at least in manufacturing and productivity. Has not productivity increased dramatically and more or less continuously since then? Have to look up the evidence.

    It may be that in fundamental technology the pace of innovation slowed and that during the last 60 years the main change was implementation of what had been discovered. But surely there were huge increases in productivity in almost all areas – whether cars or wheat or printing? And surely the rate of change in this has been roughly constant, though with some ups and downs?

    I am not offering this as certainty, have to find out the numbers in such things as labour hours in car production. Its certainly food for thought.

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