Masahiko Yoshida high-fives Pepper the robot in his karaoke bar, which could be staffed by such humanoids in the future as the world moves towards increasing automation. Picture: BLOOMBERG/MASAHIKO YOSHIDA
Masahiko Yoshida high-fives Pepper the robot, a future employee, as the world moves towards increasing automation. Picture: BLOOMBERG/MASAHIKO YOSHIDA

THE theme for this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that ended at the weekend was, "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution".

For those of you who, like me, thought there had been only one industrial revolution in the 19th century, the other two come as a bit of a surprise.

It turns out the first industrial revolution is recognised as the mechanisation of production using water and steam power, the second created mass production using electric power, and the third used electronics and information technology to automate the means of production.

Whereas the second and third industrial revolutions were each a progression of the last, the fourth industrial revolution, while rooted in the digital age, is distinct in blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds.

"Industry 4.0", as it is also known, is said to have its origins in Germany in 2011, when business people, academics and politicians came together to devise ways to increase the competitiveness of Germany’s manufacturing sector in the face of labour shortages and a highly skilled workforce unwilling to engage in low-wage manufacturing. In essence, it is the production side of the "Internet of Things".

Confused? You are not alone — the precise definition of the fourth industrial revolution remains a hot topic of debate, even in Germany. Perhaps Industry 4.0 can best be explained by ways in which it has, and will, manifest itself.

Imagine a world in which, while at work, the monitor on your wrist has analysed your dietary needs and sent a message via your phone to your fridge and pantry, which in turn have automatically ordered any missing ingredients from the supermarket.

The supermarket inventory system has filled and dispatched your order and sent a message to suppliers and manufacturers to produce and deliver replacement product for the supermarket.

In the meantime, your "smart" dishwasher has signalled to the manufacturer’s systems that one of its parts will fail shortly and the manufacturer has sent you an electronic blueprint of the part to your home 3D printer so the relevant part can be printed and installed by you.

A decade ago, this would have been science fiction. Today, all of the above is possible through the Internet of Things, and its implementation is slowed only by the high cost of delivering such innovations to the man in the street.

Central to the Internet of Things is the expanded role of artificial intelligence, which seeks to reduce the need for human intervention. Automation has already replaced humans in many facets of daily life where we believe, rightly or wrongly, that it can do a better and/or faster job.

As a result, we are able to trade stocks in a flash using algorithms and transport millions of airline passengers across the world with minimal pilot intervention. Driverless cars will soon be commercially available (provided the prototype driverless cars stop crashing into things).

While the fourth industrial revolution promises many advantages, some are starting to warn against its unbridled use. A number of high-profile proponents of technological innovation such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates have warned that artificial intelligence has the potential to be more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

What concerns them is that the unprecedented and rapid advances in technology during the past decade, specifically artificial intelligence, often do not allow for due consideration of the effects of eliminating human intervention and decision making from these highly automated processes.

The airline industry amply demonstrates the negative effects of over-automation. In the early hours of June 1 2009, an Air France Airbus A330 en route from Brazil to France stalled and plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all on board. Four years later, on July 6 2013, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 clipped a runway seawall and crashed on its final approach to San Francisco International Airport, killing three and injuring 187. On December 28 2014 an Air Asia Airbus A320 crashed into the Java Sea with the loss of all on board.

On the face of it, these three tragedies have little in common as they involved different aircraft types, two aircraft manufacturers and occurred years apart. Yet, in each instance, investigators concluded that the cause was the inability of the pilots to apply the most basic of flying skills, despite having many thousands of hours of experience between them. How was this possible? According to each of the reports, the answer lay in the degradation of flying skills caused by an over-reliance on automated systems.

The study of the effects of automation on pilot skills is not new. In 1977, the US Congress’s house committee on science and technology identified it as an issue.

In 2013, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) released a report on the effects of cockpit automation. It concluded that pilot flying skills had degraded as the level of automation had increased, and this had contributed to or been the primary cause of a number of crashes. In January 2013, the FAA issued a directive to all US airlines to re-emphasise basic flying skill training and periodic pilot evaluations.

As the WEF delegates disperse from Davos pondering ways in which to master the fourth industrial revolution, they also need to consider the effects of doing so on the human condition.

While Germany, with its skilled workforce, suffers from a lack of unskilled workers and can afford to implement Industrial 4.0, Third World countries have no such luxury. As technology renders more and more manufacturing jobs redundant, workers who lack the education to be retrained and absorbed into the growing knowledge and services sectors are becoming unemployable. In SA, the problem is made more acute by a dysfunctional education system that is not equipping the youth with the skills for an Industry 4.0 economy.

While the Davos delegates ponder how to make Industry 4.0 a success, the likes of Musk, Hawking and Gates are asking the more disturbing question: "What if it does succeed?"

• Read is director of Read Hope Phillips Attorneys. He writes in his personal capacity