The Financial Express

Demystifying the fear of Industry 4.0

| Updated: October 25, 2017 03:29:30

Demystifying the fear of Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is the nickname of robotics and automation. The scare scene of human-free factories of future is being perceived to be the manifestation of Industry 4.0. How long will it take to show up? Or, has it been with us for generations?



The revelation of vulnerability of 47 per cent US jobs to robotics in the study of Carl Benedickt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University in 2013 appears to be a global wakeup call. Not only high-end jobs of advanced countries, robots are also mastering manual labour requiring delicate human dexterity and high precision multi-modal sensing along with micro decisions. As a result, as it's being reported in The Economist that larger number of jobs are estimated to be vulnerable in relatively poorer countries: 69 per cent in India, 77 per cent in China, and as high as 85 per cent in Ethiopia. It's also being reported that the recent development of Sewbots is threatening the labour-intensive textile and readymade garments industry of Bangladesh, Vietnam and other developing countries. Such development is basically creating discontinuity in the proven path of progression along the ladder of industrial economy-starting from textile to steel, cars, and computers-reaching knowledge-based service economy. As a result, it appears that policy makers and development planners across the world are in a bit of disarray to govern the progression by taking the advantage of technology and globalisation.



But, is it a new phenomenon? Apparently, to many of us, it appears to be a sudden change. But, there appears to be an underlying pattern guiding such transformation reaching a state, where to get jobs done, machines are cheaper than even the cheapest labour available anywhere in the world.  As a result, surplus labour is no longer attractive to be competitive. Moreover, in order to take the advantage of low cost automation, we have not to sacrifice quality. Industry 4.0 is not only making production cheaper, but also it's enabling us to produce better quality products. As a result, unlike the past when we had to sacrifice the quality to take the advantage from low cost labour of developing economies, this time around machines will be producing better products at lower cost-- with diminishing human touch.



From the very beginning of the progression of human civilisation, we have been in the race of developing machines to delegate roles to produce products at lower cost, as well as with greater ease. At the very beginning, technology development was primarily limited to delegation of those roles, which were required for providing energy and performing course manipulation. As a result, due to the possession of sensing, perception, reasoning and micromanipulation ability requiring dexterity, human beings were considered to be indispensable-- both in production and usages of industrial products. But the development of low-cost high performing sensors, computing and micro-mechanical devices has changed the scenario. As a result, it is increasingly becoming feasible to develop machine capabilities to take those roles from humans, for which we were considered to be irreplaceable by machines. But is it a welcome development? 



It's true that the role of humans in both production and usages of industrial products create jobs. But it also limits our ability to create wealth, while minimising damage to environment. Unfortunately, the presence of human beings in production processes is a major source of wastage, contamination, errors, hazards and inefficiency. For example, human roles in farming appear to be a major limitation to reduce wastage of farming inputs. In order to produce more food with depleting arable lands, we must remove humans from food production. It's worth noting that 1 in 9 people goes to bed being hungry; and by 2050, we will have additional 2 billion fellow human beings.



Similarly, to make processed food free from contamination, we must make food-processing plants free from humans. In transportation, the role of humans is the major cause of road accidents. Among many limitations, the need for 700 mili-second by human drivers is the major barrier to make our roads safer and more productive. Reaching a state of driverless road transportation alone has a significant potential to contribute to economic growth. For example, according to a UN study, "India loses 3 per cent of its GDP to road accidents." Similarly, human-centric low-tech production activities are primary causes of high air pollution in developing nations, causing high-level of premature death. For example, according to a study, "Air pollution contributed to over 80,000 deaths in Delhi and Mumbai in 2015." Similarly, the integration of sensing, perception and reasoning capability, commonly known as cyber physical system or Industry 4.0 into energy production and consumption systems is opening the door of economically viable option of clean energy from renewable sources-making it a strong substitute to fossil or nuclear fuel based dirty options. For the first time, this Industry 4.0 is opening the opportunity to reduce green house gas emission without sacrificing the production-commonly known as decarburization.



Industry 4.0 is the outcome of continuous improvement of our capability to delegate roles from human to machines. We need not to wait for its arrival. It has been with us for more than half a century; and we have been nurturing it with care to make it easier for us to address our pressing developing challenges. In the absence of Industry 4.0, we cannot get rid of our limitations of meeting growing consumption demand, while causing less harm to human beings as well as environment. It's not a curse; rather, it's a blessing. Instead of being scared, we need to welcome its progression. The smarter option is to create profitable possibilities to intensify competition to benefit from such development by creating new type of jobs-most importantly high paying jobs--in an equitable manner.



The maturity of cyber physical system or Industry 4.0 poses more challenges to development planners, particularly of developing countries, than ever before. The underlying strength of the model of importing technology from the West and adding low cost labour to it to produce globally competitive outputs is rapidly eroding. It's time to take the advantage of low cost component technologies, primarily delivered by the Western firms, to crate local market of system level innovations-making production processes smarter.



Such approach will open the window to translate the mental capacity of growing number of educated youths to wealth creating machines. And mental capacity-based wealth creation capability is far more powerful than low cost labour to support continuous uplifting of economic status-enabling low income countries to migrate to high-income ones.



It's not a curse, rather a blessing for the whole humanity, irrespective of development state, to address our pressing development issues-- as outlined in the UN's sustainable development goals (SDGs). Instead of being afraid of it, we need to welcome its nurturing, maturity, and adoption. But to turn the potential into blessing, we need to have far smarter economic and development policies than what we have now.



M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D, academic, researcher and activist on Technology, Innovation and Policy, is Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, North South University, Bangladesh.


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