Many people these days talk about an impending “fourth industrial revolution” led by AI, the internet of things, 3D printing, quantum computing, and more. The first three revolutions are supposed to be:
- 1st industrial revolution (~1800-1870): the world industrializes for the first time via steam, textiles, etc.
- 2nd industrial revolution (1870-1914): continued huge growth via steel, oil, other things, and especially electricity.
- 3rd industrial revolution (1980-today): personal computers, internet, etc.
I think this is a misleading framing for the last few centuries, though, because one of these things is not remotely like the others. As far as I can tell, the major curves of human well-being and empowerment bent exactly once in recorded history, during the “1st” industrial revolution:
(And yes, there’s still a sharp jump around 1800-1870 if you chart this on a log scale.)
The “2nd” and “3rd” industrial revolutions, if they are coherent notions at all, merely continued the new civilizational trajectory created by the “1st” industrial revolution.
I think this is important for thinking about how big certain future developments might be. For example, authors of papers at some top machine learning conference seem to think there’s a decent chance that “unaided machines [will be able to] accomplish every task better and more cheaply than human workers” sometime in the next few decades. There’s plenty of reason to doubt this aggregate forecast,1 but if that happens, I think the impact would likely be on the scale of the (original) industrial revolution, rather than that of e.g. the (so small it’s hard to measure?) impact of the “3rd” industrial revolution. But for some other technologies (e.g. “internet of things”), it’s hard to tell a story for how it could possibly be as big a deal as the original industrial revolution.
- E.g. answers differ depending on how you ask the question, we should worry about response bias, and it’s not clear whether AI scientists or anyone else can make reliable long-term forecasts of this sort. [↩]