Tim Pawlenty: We’re at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In 1962, the “Jetsons” cartoon first aired, showcasing a family living in the future with helpful access to electronic newspapers, smart watches, drones, video chats, flat-screen TVs, interactive alarm clocks, wise-cracking robot housekeepers, space tourism, pill cameras, flying cars, and other technology that struck many, at the time, as preposterously futuristic.

We now know the rest of the story.

Jetson-like technology is already widely used or soon will be and, to paraphrase some leading technologists – nothing really big has even happened yet. The power of technology is now compounding every 18 to 24 months, and we are merely at the beginning of the beginning.

Think about this for a moment: 10 years ago, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Snapchat, Instagram and others apps didn’t exist or were in their infancy. Now it’s hard to imagine life without them.

Yet, it’s not always easy to keep up. Got a new phone? Time to upgrade. Have apps on that phone? Time to upgrade. Want a new car? Time to consider whether owning a car is even necessary. Drivers will soon be optional.

Although unfolding changes will dramatically improve our quality of life in many exciting ways, other aspects of those changes will be highly disruptive. It will become even harder for many to keep up.

For this reason, it’s urgent for our education, business, science and government leaders to understand the coming changes and develop plans to use those changes as a force for good for the people, places and causes they serve.

What’s driving these changes? The dawn of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Previous periods of quantum change were triggered by steam power, electricity and the internal combustion engine – and more recently, the internet. Advances have now ushered in the next generation of technologies, which include nanotechnology, advanced biotech, next-generation “bigger data” analytics, and, especially, artificial intelligence, or “AI.”

The new technologies will increase speed, precision, productivity, leisure, health and access to nearly everything. Yet, the enormous scale and pace of change will also present big new challenges.

According to Forrester research, the application of new technologies will eliminate 6 percent of the jobs in the U.S. by 2021. Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research recently concluded that 88 percent of all manufacturing jobs lost in recent years were displaced by technology, not trade. The World Economic Forum’s “Hefty Price Tag” report projects that 65 percent of children entering school today will join the workforce by taking jobs that don’t yet exist.

Driverless cars, trucks and trains are just the beginning. New technologies will soon enable “cashier-less” stores and various forms of robotic doctors, lawyers, farmers, mechanics, construction workers, tutors, insurance agents, bank tellers, and other work currently performed by both blue- and white-collar workers.

Those who invent, improve, commercialize, maintain and leverage new technology will disproportionately prosper. Those who don’t, simply won’t.

Income disparities and wealth concentration could dramatically increase as the divide between technology’s beneficiaries and its victims triggers further social and economic turmoil.

We must conduct a forward-­leaning inventory of the skills and capabilities needed to design, build, maintain, commercialize and leverage the future. That inventory should solicit input from the leading subject matter experts in these emerging fields and, once completed, the inventory should be compared to the skills and capabilities currently being offered and taught in our K-12 and postsecondary systems. We then need to retool those systems, so today’s children are better prepared for tomorrow’s jobs.

This will involve making significant new investments in modern and nimble training and retraining programs. The job impacts of the new technologies will be felt everywhere, and we need to ensure industry and government have partnerships and programs in place to provide efficient and agile retraining opportunities.

And we must go all-in to support – and promote – vocational training relating to jobs that cannot be easily automated. Skilled positions such as such plumbers, electricians, painters, police officers, hospitality managers, painters, artists, and others may be more immune, on balance, to technology’s advance. We should celebrate and encourage such positions as vital to our future.

The effects of the coming changes will be so universal that bipartisan solutions should be expected and achievable. Conservatives will need to understand that changes will have massive effects on jobs – and that funding will be needed for better training programs and a more effective educational system. Liberals will need to understand that the structure of key government programs is currently ill-suited to address the nature of change that will soon be upon us.

Benjamin Franklin said, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d add grace, hope and love to the list of things that, thankfully, spring eternal. But, the list ends about there.

All of us need to understand that quantum change is happening and that preparing for it is our collective duty. Technology’s march toward the future is inevitable. What’s not inevitable is the quality of our preparedness. We all have some work to do.

Tim Pawlenty was governor of Minnesota from 2003 to 2011.


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