THAT the world is enthralled by what is in store for the future with the rise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is an understatement.
Ever since the concept of the 4IR became a catchphrase for the next “big” thing, the global trendsetters are peddling it as a panacea that can cure most of the ills that humanity is currently grappling with. What is more, the technopreneurs are saying that the fusion of digital revolution and biotechnology will change the world like never before.
After being lulled into accepting that technological progress is the only way forward, we forget that we will lose our humanity along the way.
This is partly due to the fact that with technological change, social and cultural norms will have to evolve; some of those norms will then be codified into a body of regulatory law. This is most evident when the First Industrial Revolution took the world by storm.
An unprecedented social, cultural, economic and ecological change took place alongside the First Industrial Revolution: mass urbanisation, significant increase in the educational attainment of the population, role of the state and in how governments are chosen, child labour, and ecological crisis were not simply the negative and positive externalities of technological change, but were ways in which society evolved in order to enable the productivity possibilities of the new technologies.
In his illuminating new book, Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak lays bare the contradictions of how humanity is dealing with technological change.
In the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Leadership Dilemma, the writer acknowledges that the world is changing fast, and in unexpected ways. He rightly points out that with rapid advancement in information technology, huge swathes of the job market are at risk of being automated.
This book is a rarity in the discourse on 4IR because unlike the mainstream narrative, it cautions the reader to assess technological change with a keen eye on what it does to humanity.
Dzulkifli argues that there are three “leadership” dilemmas that have to be wisely dealt with before a successful policy on the 4IR can be formulated. The first dilemma has to do with whether or not the 4IR is an isolated phenomena or it is a continuum of events.
We would do well, according to the author, to conceptualise the 4IR as a continuum of events as we have to understand the interconnectedness of the 4IR to the first, second, and third industrial revolutions.
What were the factors that triggered the First Industrial Revolution in Europe some 250 years ago? How did European society deal with the disruptions? These are some of the important questions that need a well thought-out answer before we can embark on the 4IR superhighway.
The invention of the steam engine during the First Industrial Revolution, for example, is dubbed by economic historians as a “general purpose technology” — an advance that can be used to do things more effectively across many different facets of life.
A steam engine could be hooked to any production facility that previously relied on wind or water or animal power. It could be affixed to transport devices — boats, cars, train engines to make them go farther, faster, with more horsepower.
Steam could be used to boost productivity in all sorts of contexts and industries. It is the general purpose technologies such as steam and electricity that generate revolutions.
What is of importance, Dzulkifli cautions, is to take a holistic view of the previous industrial revolutions and take stock of both the good and the ugly. Many of the negative externalities of the previous revolutions such as the ecological crisis are still not dealt with successfully.
Will 4IR be able to deal with a host of problems brought about by the previous industrial revolutions or will it exacerbate the problems?
The second leadership dilemma is even more pressing. With the change in technology, are we moving away from anthropocentrism to technocentrism? The First Industrial Revolution had ushered in the anthropocentrism era largely due to heightened human activities.
Put in another way, the ability to “tame” nature had placed humanity at the centre of the universe. That said, we should also note, according to the author, that anthropocentrism had caused immeasurable damage in the guise of species extinction and in widening the wealth gap between the top one per cent and the rest.
In addition, the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) will bring anthropocentrism to a new low. Since STEM is already dehumanising, 4IR has to be properly navigated so that it will not bring about the new era of technocentrism, which will surely relegate humanity to the backburner.
The final dilemma is the tug of war between artificial intelligence (AI) and primordial intelligence. Will the rise of AI bring about the end of “free will” as we know it? Will it also bring about the dictatorship of the machines?
These are some of the legitimate concerns that are raised in the book. Most of all, we need to take heed of the central message of the book that is the need to understand ourselves before reaching out to technology that sits outside of us.
Humanity should face 4IR with “humanness” intact.
The writer is an associate professor and director of Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS) at Universiti Sains Malaysia