From steam engines to electrical outlets to computer terminals to AI chatbots, the rate of innovation is accelerating and the world is getting better for it. At least that’s my view – and I’m sticking by it!
Call me naive, but I choose to believe in a future, more similar to Star Trek, not Terminator. The future I look forward to is one of exploration, new frontiers and evolution of the human species. I know there is a lot of fear of the unknown with new technologies like artificial intelligence, but I believe humanity is up to the challenge of effectively navigating the incredible innovation occurring right now.
Part of that optimism is because I get to see new possibilities every day. I am lucky to live in Silicon Valley, just a few miles away from Google’s world headquarters. Several Google employees and beta testers of the Google (now Waymo) self-driving cars live near me. We get to see the Waymo cars trundle around our neighborhood every day as we collectively train these autonomous robots to navigate other cars, pedestrians, stop-signs and the occasional pack of school-age cyclists.
Think about it. It’s pretty amazing to witness the very first self-driving cars motoring down El Camino Real or past my front door. I can’t help but smile as I think about how my teenage son is teaching (and likely confusing) these incredible machine learning algorithms as he learns to drive around right now with his learners permit. I keep telling my kids how cool it is to see history being created right in front of us, but my son just shakes his head and grumbles about how slow the Google cars are, and my daughter wants to know why they have those funny spinny things on them.
According to industry and economic pundits, we are currently living through the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That’s pretty cool to hear, but what does it mean beyond Google cars pausing just a bit too long at the corner stop light?
First, a brief history of technology.
The First Industrial Revolution brought about the transition from mostly agrarian and rural societies to industrial and urban. Water and steam power were the centerpoint of the First Industrial Revolution and powered the advent of modern mass manufacturing techniques.
The Second Industrial Revolution happened 100 years later, and steel, oil and electricity again changed the way we manufactured goods and also how we traveled around the world or just down the street. From light bulbs to cars to electrical power plants, the Second Industrial Revolution was a time of amazing innovation and breathtaking change.
The Third Industrial Revolution, or the Digital Revolution, started in the 1980’s and continues through today. Computers, the Internet and the pervasive shift from analog to digital has not just changed the way we communicate or process information, but have also profoundly changed our general expectations for the quality of life. We live an incredible life of convenience and wish-fulfillment that our grandparents could barely dream of. And we expect the companies we buy from to deliver that convenience with a smile and the personal touch.
And now we’re about to experience the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This revolution is about embedding digital technology into our day-to-day life, like Star Trek. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, also called Industry 4.0 is about robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, 3D printing and autonomous vehicles. Exciting times!
Now that the Industry 3.0 shift from analog to digital is finally completing its forty year journey, Industry 4.0 is building on that Digital Revolution. For example, modern manufacturing firms are creating entirely new solutions, not just recreating from analog to digital. What new possibilities come with Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and mobile apps? Every day seems to present us with something new. Unlike the Second and Third industrial revolutions that were mostly about how to do old things faster or cheaper, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is about charting entirely new territory like the First Industrial Revolution. We are again unlocking the “art of the possible” in entirely new ways. Whether it’s Waymo cars or Amazon Echos or Flume water sensors, manufacturers are delivering entirely new solutions to old problems.
But, if you are looking for one common theme through all of the industrial revolutions, it has to be the customer. There is always a person who is buying that incredible new thing, whether it’s the new machined cloth pattern in 1804, the Holt tractor in 1904, the Apple IIc in 1984 or the Nest thermostat in 2014. And through each of these industrial revolutions, it is the companies most focused on delivering exceptional customer service and building loyal fans that ultimately win. The next technology wave always brings killer new products and new customers. But it is an exceptional customer experience that keeps the customers returning.
I believe that of all the technologies fueling Industry 4.0, it is the new customer relationship technologies that will separate the winners from the losers. Digital manufacturing companies will build themselves around seamless customer feedback via IoT and self-service via AI-powered chatbots. With this close connection to their customers, these digital manufacturing companies will build better products faster and create loyal customers who come back for more.
And along the way, I’m still looking forward to my first ride in a Google, err Waymo, self-driving car. Too cool!