In January this year the major agenda at the World Economic Forum in Davos was a discussion on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR). It is already underway in some advanced economies, and there are fears that it will be very disruptive and create huge unemployment. The Davos meeting was meant to discuss and allay these fears.
However, I feel that the Fourth Industrial Revolution for developing countries can in fact produce more employment and benefits.
What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Our societies are characterized by various industrial revolutions. The First Industrial Revolution started in the late 1700s when muscle power was replaced by steam, mostly produced by coal. The Second Industrial Revolution, which started in the early 1900s, was driven by electricity and characterized by big machines and assembly line manufacturing. The Third Industrial Revolution, which began in early 1960s was based on computers, information technology (IT), electronics and automated production.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by the internet of things (IoT), 24/7 connectivity, rapid communication, miniaturization of design and 3D printing.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by the internet of things (IoT), 24/7 connectivity, rapid communication, miniaturization of design and 3D printing, which allows for manufacturing and production of goods wherever they are needed.
I feel that the IoT and 3D printing, in particular, have the capability of allowing countries like India to leapfrog into the FIR.
India is already a decentralized society where more than 60% of the population lives in rural areas. They live in conditions of poverty and lack basic amenities of life. Their lives can be improved drastically by providing livelihood opportunities and amenities for households powered by FIR.
Livelihood opportunities via high tech farming
Around 80% of the rural population is involved in the farming sector. Presently, farming is non-remunerative and it needs to be completely overhauled to make it attractive. Thus, for increasing income for rural households I foresee the use of high-tech precision farming which could either be land- or container-based. In container farming, all the inputs of farming are applied in an efficient way in enclosed shipping containers. This container based farming - as opposed to land based farming - can grow any food (grain, vegetables or fruits) or fodder with the use of precise levels of light, temperature, humidity and nutrients. All these inputs are controlled by smart sensors and computers. This type of farming requires very few labourers, very little soil and water and is based on the principle of hydroponics or aeroponics.
There are claims by the practitioners of container agriculture that it uses 90% less water than conventional agriculture and produces 150 times the yields that would have been obtained from land-based agriculture. Such high-tech farms are coming up in urban areas in Western countries and provide a model to be emulated in developing nations like India.
With precision land- or container-based agriculture powered by renewable energy systems, farming can become very efficient, high yielding and hence remunerative.
Today, the biggest crisis in farming in India is the lack of labour, low prices of produce, shortage of water and very poor soils. With precision land- or container-based agriculture powered by solar energy and other renewable energy systems, farming can become very efficient, high yielding and hence remunerative. To my mind this is the future of farming.
I also feel that restaurant owners will eventually start owning agricultural containers in order for them to have full control on the production and utilization of food. This level of self-efficacy may give rise to large number of rural and urban restaurants. This will generate huge employment opportunities.
Amenities for rural households
For providing devices and amenities to rural households, I feel FIR will be based on 3D or additive manufacturing.
In 3D manufacturing the parts or the product are built layer by layer in any place where the 3D machine exists. The designing can be done anywhere in the world and it can be sent by internet to the 3D printer. Thus the raw material - metal powders in case of production of metal parts, or plastic wires for plastic products - together with a suitable glue or solidification of raw material, forms the end product. Today, 3D printing is being used to produce parts of rockets, whole machines and even body parts. The technology is rapidly progressing and is already becoming mainstream for small specialized manufacturing facilities.
[With 3D printing] we might see a proliferation of high-tech small-scale manufacturing facilities in rural areas.
Use of 3D manufacturing will also reduce the energy consumption in transportation of goods since they will be manufactured and made available wherever they are needed.
It will also help in decentralization of production. Large-scale production of goods in the present scenario always works on the principle of economies of scale. With 3D manufacturing the quality and price can be maintained at any place. In fact in most cases the prices can be drastically reduced since there is no wastage of material (3D products are built up rather than machined) and dealers' networks need not be developed. We might therefore see a proliferation of high-tech small-scale manufacturing facilities in rural areas.
For rural mobility, electric vehicles can form the backbone and could be charged by locally produced renewable electricity. FIR through 3D manufacturing may help in production of such vehicles in rural areas.
Some aspects of FIR are already being played out in rural areas of India. An experiment called "School in the Cloud" has shown that illiterate children if given access to the internet can rapidly learn to get information through YouTube on how to make things.
Telemedicine has the potential of providing huge employment for primary health workers...
The health sector can also benefit from FIR. Smartphones together with suitable attachments and apps are being developed which allow the vital medical data of the patient to be transmitted to the hospital. The doctors then recommend medicines or a course of action. This is a part of telemedicine that is rapidly developing and helping patients in rural areas of the world. Only in very serious cases or for surgeries does a patient need to go to the hospital.
Telemedicine has the potential of providing huge employment for primary health workers who will visit the patients and use smartphones to take and transmit medical data and then administer medicines to them based on a doctor's recommendations.
Making the FIR happen in India
As the evolution in IoT is taking place, advanced economies are already working on rolling out ultra-speed 5G internet networks as part of FIR.
One of the attractive aspects of 5G is that it will work in devices with very little power and thus the charge of a smart phone can last for a long time. Technologies are also evolving so that the energy for transmitting information through 5G is being reduced. Today's technology uses huge amounts of power to push signals in 3G and 4G networks.
If India vigorously pursues the path of 5G and bypasses 4G networks then this can further improve India's chances of leapfrogging into the FIR.
If India vigorously pursues the path of 5G and bypasses 4G networks then this can further improve India's chances of leapfrogging into the FIR. For most consumers in Western countries wi-fi is extremely fast because of an extensive network of fibre optics connecting homes. But for developing countries like India where fibre optics has not reached the density needed, 5G offers a very high speed network in remote areas.
There is fear expressed by some of the proponents of FIR that it will lead to large-scale unemployment or only knowledge-based employment. However I feel that this fear is unfounded because maintaining and running these machines and infrastructure will require a huge workforce which can be tapped in rural areas.
It is food for thought that smartphones are used with ease by a variety of people - rich, poor, educated, not educated. We are not concerned about the mechanics of phones but only about how they can be used for our purposes. There is no special education needed to operate a smartphone. There is, therefore, a great lesson to be learned from this example that for the spread of FIR in India we may develop a workforce which can be rapidly trained to run these services. This may give rise to a huge service industry and employment in rural areas.
The FIR can usher in a decentralized and democratic society since the control of the means of production and usage will be in the hands of locals.
However for FIR to accelerate, incentives to industries and enlightened policies by the government of India are required. Also needed are excellent engineers and scientists who will be knowledgeable in precision agriculture, 3D printing and other technologies used in FIR.
I feel that the FIR can usher in a decentralized and democratic society since the control of the means of production and usage will be in the hands of locals.