The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Opportunities & Problems

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Over the course of history, mankind has perfected its industry by not only relying on technical evolution but also by reinventing it as new resources have created new technical means. Revolutions occur when new innovation or technology and new methods of seeing the world cause a significant change in the social structure and economic system.

The first industrial revolution spans from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century. It brought mechanical innovations and with it steam power, which brought the coal-powered external combustion engine together with the mechanisation of the textile industry and the birth of the factory.

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The second industrial revolution started at the end of the 19th century. New technological advancements initiated the emergence of a new source of energy: electricity, gas and oil. As a result, it brought the oil-powered internal combustion engine and electrical communication, the electrification of the factory and mass production.

The third industrial revolution or digital revolution which began in the 1960s brought computerisation, i.e. mainframe computers, personal computers and the internet, and the information and communication technology (ICT) available today due to the emergence of a new type of energy: nuclear energy.

Industry 4.0

From the first industrial revolution, mechanization through water and steam power, to the mass production and assembly lines using electricity in the second industrial revolution, the Fourth Industrial revolution is underway which build upon the third industrial revolution with the adoption of automation and computers and enhance it with smart and autonomous systems fuelled by machine learning and data.

The Fourth Industrial revolution or “Industry 4.0 a term coined in 2011 at the Hannover Fair, portrays the present and developing environment in which disruptive technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR) are changing the way we live and work exponentially. This is the first industrial revolution based on a new technological phenomenon -digitalization- rather than in the emergence of a new type of energy. A combination of the Internet of Systems, cyber-physical systems, and the Internet of Things make Industry 4.0 possible and the smart factory a reality. By implementing smart technologies, it creates a world where computers are connected and communicate with one another to ultimately make decisions without human involvement. As smart machines gain access to more data, it continues getting smarter. As a result, factories will reduce more waste, become more productive and efficient. Eventually, the genuine power of the Fourth Industrial revolution comes from the network of these machines that are digitally associated with each other that create and share information.

3D Printing

The implementation of three-dimensional (3D) printing in human health, especially bio-printing, is currently a major trend of 3D printing application. Bio-printing is a technique of utilizing 3D printing technology with biomaterials like bio-inks, substances made of living cells, to combine cells and fabricate organs and tissues. Bio-printing grows rapidly since Charles Hull first invented 3D printing in 1984. In 1999, the first synthetic 3D scaffold of human bladder made of patient’s own cells was successfully transplanted into young patient undergoing urinary bladder argumentation. Then in 2002, a functional 3D kidney capable of filtering blood and producing urine was printed and worked well on an animal, which further inspired the idea of printing organs and tissues using 3D printing. In 2009, Organovo, a medical laboratory and research company first produced printed blood vessel for blood transportation. In 2011, a US-based private company named TeVido invented breast tissue containing nipples and cellular wound cover based on cells extracted from patient’s adipose stem cells.

Currently bio-printing can be utilized to help drugs and pills by printing organs and tissues for experiments and have the potential of printing bio-scaffolds for joints and ligaments regeneration. As a technologically innovative country, Singapore invested heavily on 3D printing and bio-printing to become a major player in its research and development stage. In May 2013, the first local start-up company for bio-printing, Bio3D Technologies Pte LTD formed and they created the Singapore’s first bio-printer only in two months. Universities in Singapore also pay a lot of attention on bio-printing. In March 2017, Emerson Electric, a global engineering firm, open an additive manufacturing centre inside NTU with five years collaboration with Nanyang Technological University.

In July 2017, the National University of Singapore Centre for Additive Manufacturing (AM.NUS) which is a 3D printing centre focusing on 3D printing and human health with S$ 18 million as its initial fund supported from NUS []. With so many efforts put by government and universities, bio-printing will surely come into the real life of people in Singapore in the next few years. Considering its capabilities, 3D printing does have many positive impacts on human beings. Through printing organs, bio-printing can solve the problem of insufficient donation and also replace volunteers in drug tests. In addition, 3D printing can prevent cell rejection since the materials can be extracted from the patients themselves. However, bio-printing do raise some drawbacks especially some ethics issues including uncontrolled production if the technique become simple in the future and who has the rights to produce and judge the quality of the printings.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI), sometimes called machine intelligence, is intelligence demonstrated by machines, which is different from the natural intelligence displayed by humans and other animals. Although the idea of AI appeared long time ago, the investment and interest in AI only boomed in the first decades of the 21st century, when powerful computer hardware was able to support machine leaning techniques. From the Chess-playing computer Deep Blue in 1997 to the Go-playing master AlphaGo in 2015, AI technology develops a lot along the way. With such development, AI techniques help to solve tons of challenging problems in computer science, software engineering and operations research.

The development of AI will have great impact on business, government, and society. For business, industries face the challenge of adopting new techniques involving AI technology to serve the existing needs more efficiently. Consumers tend to require faster and more advanced online shopping experience. One example is Pinterest Lens, which is an AI based tool, which conducts visual searches based on camera view. For shopping specifically, such visual discovery gives people a way to discover new brands and ways of styling that they never knew existed. More advanced tools are required to be developed to meet higher consumer expectations in the future. For government, AI has the potential to fundamentally transform how government gets the work done by changing the nature of many jobs and the way of government operations. Cognitive functions of AI could be applied from virtual desktop assistants to applications that govern large, sifting systems. Such AI-based applications can reduce backlogs, cut costs, and improve accuracy of projections and handle many other tasks human can’t easily work out. With the technology advance of AI, government agencies are required to bring more collaboration between the government and the people and more creativity to work design and workforce planning.

For the society, AI will change the way we live, work, and play. Everyone is going to have a virtual assistant, and smart homes will reduce energy usage and provide better security. People will be doing high-tech, high-touch, and high-trust jobs due to the changing nature of work. We will be entertained by media generated specific to our personal preferences and news or market reports tailored specifically for us. Singapore, as a pioneer in technology development, is well positioned to benefit from the incoming industry 4.0. It ranked 11th for the Structure of Production, and 2nd for Drivers of Production in ‘Readiness for the Future of Production Report’ released by World Economic Forum (WEF).

AI adoption in Singapore is already robust. According to Seagate Technology’s latest survey of IT professionals across the Asia-Pacific, at least six in 10 organisations have already implemented AI in one form or another within areas such as information technology (60%), supply chain and logistics (48%), customer support (49%) as well as research and development (41%). As described by Mr Tan Kok Yam, Deputy Secretary of the Smart Nation and Digital Government Office in the Prime Minister’s Office, at the Tembusu Forum themed “Fourth Industrial Revolution and Singapore”, Singapore is on the route to become a smart nation and citizens could make use of the data available on government platforms with innovative results. AI technology plays an important role in shaping the Singapore today and a blueprint of smart nation in the future.


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