Come the Revolution

It’s “…of the year” time again. You know, “Man (or Woman) of the Year,” “Sports Hero of the Year,” “Corrupt Legislator of the Year,” etc. Then there’s the Phrase of the Year. If I had to vote on that based on my reading right now, I’d have to go with “Internet of Things.” (  We may not even be quite sure exactly what that means yet, but, by God, we’re going to talk about it.

The candidate to keep an eye on for next year—at least in manufacturing circles—is Industry 4.0 or Industrie 4.0, to use the original German. Industrie 4.0 is a comprehensive plan sponsored by the German government to take advantage of the Internet of Things for the benefit of the German manufacturing sector.

If the vision is anywhere near to accurate, Industry 4.0, like the Internet itself, will change everything—and not just in Germany. It’s not going be our dad’s manufacturing anymore; heck, it’s not even going to be our manufacturing anymore.

What set me off on this journey through Internet links looking up all kinds of fascinating facts about Industry 1.0, a.k.a. the First Industrial Revolution (Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power loom—ground zero for automation in factories—was a Church of England clergyman.), is this blog post by Mike Roberts of LNS Research. It puts both the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 into context, and I think it’s worth the read.

It’s hard not to be sucked in to the hype about IoT and the 4th Industrial Revolution. I hope all the good things visualized come to pass. But for me, the Elephant in the Room that nobody is really addressing is what happens when robots do all the work and we don’t need 9/10s of the people we employ now? They can’t all be retrained to work in Industry 4.0 and even if they could be, who would employ them if robots are doing much of the work?

Maybe I’m looking that this the wrong way (not uncommon for me), but I wonder what kind of society we’ll be if half the people simple don’t have to work any more because their labor isn’t needed. Maybe it will be great. But maybe not. We may have many years of this before we get to the all the good bits promised by Industry 4.0.

I’m sure over the long haul, all those questions will be answered, and if early industrial revolutions are any example, we’ll be better off after the revolution than before. But getting there may not necessarily be a lot of fun. Every revolution has its casualties.