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Friday 14 December 2018
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TT and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The world has experienced three distinct types of industrial change. The first industrial revolution (1784) saw the mechanisation of the productive processes using water and steam power. This was followed by the advent of mass production made possible through the use of electric power, the second revolution (1870). The third (1969) made use of electronics and information technology to automate production.

Presently we are now experiencing what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (digital). Building on the third, the digital revolution that is taking place all around us started around the middle of the last century. The main features reflect a fusion of technologies that is quite frankly blurring what we previously knew as the division separating the physical, digital, and biological spheres. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the result of this revolution is turning out to be unlike anything we have experienced, altering the way we live, work, and interact with one another.

Trinidad and Tobago, especially at this time, has to pay attention to these changes that are taking place. We are not technology producers but rather technology consumers. As we try to diversify the economy, the use of scarce foreign exchange has to be targeted to give us not only the biggest bank for the dollar but place us at the cutting edge of emerging technologies. Perhaps more importantly, we need to pay close attention to the changes in the productive processes and the output that is riding the new wave of technological change as we embark on diversifying the economy. We must be competitive using the latest technologies and develop relevant products that are globally in demand.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has the latent capacity to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations globally. Technological innovation is expected to result in long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. We should experience a fall in transportation and communication costs; logistics and global supply chains will become more effective, and the cost of trade will diminish. This will open new markets and drive economic growth. However, there are a number of challenges this revolution poses.

There is the fear that revolution could lead to greater inequality, possibly even disrupt labour markets. Given the possibility that automation can replace labour throughout productive processes of the economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labour.

The groups that benefit most are those that provide intellectual and physical capital—the innovators, shareholders, and investors. In fact technology has been blamed for stagnating incomes, or lower incomes in high-income countries. So far the demand for highly skilled workers have increased but the demand for workers who possess less education and lower skills has decreased. In some countries we see job markets that have a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a disappearance of the middle. This type of development has to be carefully looked at by us.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is having a major impact on business. It is making completely new ways of meeting existing needs and this is significantly disrupting existing industry value chains. On the demand side growing transparency, consumer interaction, and new patterns of consumer behaviour are compelling companies to change how they design, market, and distribute products and services.

The impact on governments by the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s rapid pace of change and broad impacts means that legislators and regulators are being challenged to adapt quickly. Governments need to embrace “agile” governance, in the same way the private sector has increasingly to adopt nimble responses to software development and business operations. This means our regulators have to constantly adjust to a new, fast-changing environment, reinventing themselves to enhance their understanding of what it is they are regulating. Our government as well as our regulatory agencies must work closely with business and civil society if they are to get regulations right and not stifle innovation.

As people, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will increasingly impact our sense of privacy, our thinking of ownership, our consumption patterns, the time we spend on work and leisure, and how we advance in our careers, nurture our skills, meet people, and foster relationships.

We in this country are known to copy and implement things wholescale. In the end, it should be our people and values that determine the effect of this revolution on us. We can shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them. Certainly the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to “robotize” humanity and rob us of our heart and soul.

However, the other possibility is it can enhance the best parts of human nature such as our creativity, empathy, stewardship as well as develop a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. We must all make sure the latter is our reality.

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