The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Over the break, Tesla unveiled its new all-electric pickup truck: the Cybertruck. Amidst the discussion about its controversial styling, many have glossed over the truck’s state-of-the-art self-driving system. Tesla’s pickup truck will add to the growing number of cars with autopilot assist features, and though Tesla pioneered the technology in commercial automobiles, this feature has now been adopted by the majority of big-name American car brands. This shows the rapid expansion of automation in modern industries, with more and more companies taking advantage of improvements in software technologies to transform their respective sectors.

Unbeknownst to many, however, the rise of automation has already significantly changed the majority of industries in this country. Its effects on American culture and society in the years to come may dictate the livelihoods of a large number of Americans, warranting a much greater level of scrutiny.

The growing influence of automation has already made its way into the public sphere, best seen in the candidacy of Andrew Yang, whose platform confronts the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” as it seeks to address job loss due to automation. First and foremost, the success of Andrew Yang’s campaign, given the strength of his devoted supporters and his qualification for the December Democratic primary debates, shows that the issue of automation resonates with the American public. Many, including Yang, point to job loss as a key factor for Trump’s election in 2016, with the sitting president promising to bring back manufacturing jobs by targeting, incorrectly, bad trade policy and foreign nations. States such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were crucial for Trump’s electoral college victory, and it is not a coincidence that these states each included counties that witnessed the loss of up to a quarter of manufacturing jobs in the past decade. Yang coined the term “the fourth industrial revolution” to describe how the effect of automation in the private industry on unemployment, citing sources that show tens of millions of jobs to be lost due to automated mechanized industry in the coming decade. By now, frontrunners Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden have now started to use Yang’s idea of combatting a “fourth industrial revolution” in their platforms, showing an increasing political interest surrounding this issue.

Despite its rapid incorporation into political dialogue, many still dismiss the threat of Yang’s and others’ claims of a radical change in automation, calling it Neo-Luddism or technophobia. They often reference the argument that technology creates more new jobs than it replaces, just as how the computer displaced many menial tasks but created software engineers.

Many cite the accelerated growth of firms and the fact that automated processes grow in conjunction with the need of human regulation and maintenance as reasons why the expansion of automation technology into more sectors does not negatively impact the workforce. Indeed, studies show that 23 million jobs were created between 1993 and 2016 by automation related work in Europe. However, it is not that simple. There exists a sharp discrepancy between unskilled and skilled labor forces, and the former truly suffers from the introduction of automation into industry. While loss of factory jobs may mean more software engineers, a displaced factory worker does not suddenly become a software engineer; education, especially in a capitalist society, requires an extremely high monetary investment to complete. Automation has already disproportionately impacted the low-skill workforce because such jobs involve repetitive actions that machines can easily replicate and complete more efficiently.

The resulting statistics are startling. Automation, incorporated into many sectors and industries, has already put millions at risk of unemployment and seeks to completely change the majority of society regardless of social class. 47 percent of jobs, most of them low income, face the risk of replacement due to automation. With self-driving technology such as Tesla’s autopilot now able to function flawlessly on highways, seven companies, ranging from Volvo to Tesla, have fully-automated trucking in the works. Given that trucking has now become the most common job in America, drivers and workers alike, numbering nearly two million, will need to grapple with the severe layoffs and other consequences associated with the “fourth industrial revolution,” showing just one significant and tangible example of automation being incorporated into even broader sectors. Automation also seeks to bring a complete change to overall pace of life; many already worry about the role of artificial intelligence technology in data analysis, including the risk of privacy infringement and the influence of social media in our elections. Rapid changes in software may also see delivery services, pharmaceutical research, and jobs in retail and storage, to name a few, being sped up immensely due to the implementation of automation and software into existing infrastructure. Changes will be drastic, and workforce dynamics will be forced to shift in order to avoid replacement.

Automation certainly poses significant challenges to overcome, but this shouldn’t be something the public fears. Evolving markets always impact the workforce, and these changes are core to the growth of industrial societies. The fourth industrial revolution, if managed properly, will be just another transformation. The potential influence and consequences of this automation revolution places it in the spotlight, leading to more public attention and calls for support that the working class will certainly need.