What's this Fourth Industrial Revolution that's trending?

The 4IR requires people of Africa to really understand what Africa has what Africa needs and then to use nanotechnology intellect to solve the problem and to find a solution, author says.
The 4IR requires people of Africa to really understand what Africa has what Africa needs and then to use nanotechnology intellect to solve the problem and to find a solution, author says.
Image: 123RF / Jakub Gojda

Much is being said about the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is now entering pop-culture as 4IR. Interestingly, so much of the 4IR comment is incorrect, or is very limited in the extent of the concept.

The extent of 4IR encompasses two aspects; it is 'bricklaying with atoms' and 'extensive systems integration'. Science and technology has developed to the point at which we can now view individual atoms under a microscope; and we can make materials in which we know where each atom lies and why. These materials include; carbon fibre, electronic circuitry, laser fibre-optic glass, and high-strength-low-weight metal alloys.

Look at carbon fibre, as used in aircraft construction. It is only carbon, just like coal or charcoal, but what makes it stronger than steel is the way in which the atoms are arranged. This ‘bricklaying with atoms’ ensures a very precise pattern. You know the term 'nanotechnology'. A nanometre is merely a metric size, it comes in the decreasing metric size scale of: milli, micro, nano, pico, femto; and so on. The size of an atom is between a tenth and a half of a nanometre, so that is why nanotechnology means: building at atomic size levels.

What this all implies is that modern technology is a case of construction and production such that one understands the principles and techniques from atomic levels upwards. Aircraft turbine blades, shatter-proof glass and cellphone screens are all illustrations of building with nanotechnology understanding.

That means we have to use all the brain power that the country has. The 4IR move is a case of competing internationally with optimum brain power and understanding. It is our A-Team versus their A-Team. If you are not assembling a world-class A-Team then you are not even on the log.

As soon as you are doing some business or industrial operation, because 'the first world is doing it and they must have a reason' then you are not fielding an A-Team. The 4IR requires people of Africa to really understand what Africa has what Africa needs and then to use nanotechnology intellect to solve the problem and to find a solution.

People of Africa are completely capable of doing this. Our largest impediment, by far, is a lack of self-confidence. Far too many South Africans just believe that other people from other countries must be better than us at finding solutions to our problems. They are not.

If the Springbok rugby team were to play a United States rugby team, few people would doubt that the Springboks would win. That is because our 15 could beat their 15. The outcome has nothing to do with population size, or the fact that they may have a more expensive team bus.

In contemplating the term 4IR let us look at where this term came from.

The First Industrial Revolution is considered to have occurred between 1760 and 1830. In England many home cottage industry workers started accumulating together in production plants. This happened largely in the textile industry. It was found that productivity went up when people grouped into specialist teams. This approach was so effective that England banned the export of machinery and of trade secrets, and even prohibited skilled workers from leaving the country. Steam power came about and factories thrived.

The Second Industrial Revolution was from about 1870 to 1914, the onset of the First World War. During this period electricity appeared and so did oil. Communications developed and so did long-range transport, with the arrival of motor cars and the expansion of rail networks.

After the Second World War the home consumer market expanded as armaments factories started producing items like fridges for household use. The Third Industrial Revolution occurred from about 1969 to 2000 as modern electronics came about, and small integrated circuit electronic chips enabled the mass production of products like hi-fi and home computers. Biotechnology developed and medical systems expanded on the back of modern technology.

Now we arrive at a period being called 4IR. Science has arrived at an atomic level understanding of life in general. However the other big aspect of this modern move is 'large-scale systems integration'. Modern thinking, combined with computer power, fibre optics, the internet... and more, means that people can conceive of vast complex systems; and also get them to work. International airline traffic, Stock Exchange communications, fibre optic networks... these are all the result of large complex systems development, after modern physics found out how to put a laser beam through a glass fibre, the thickness of human hair, and then to send thousands of messages through the tube, travelling on the laser beam.

Space exploration is expanding. Israel sends a spacecraft to the Moon. Japan lands an exploration pod on an asteroid and the boy from Pretoria, Elon Musk, develops a space rocket destined to go to Mars. His Falcon Heavy rocket can carry a municipal bus into deep space. A Black Hole is photographed. This is all indicative of technological confidence and systems integration.

This is 4IR. This is systems integration, using materials constructed with atomic level thinking and understanding. The 4IR mentality is one of advanced thinking, on all fronts, using science. Viewing 4IR as merely a case of more advanced internet connections and home TV fibre optics is seriously missing the point of what is going on.

South Africa can lead in 4IR approaches we have the savvy, we need the self confidence. Germany is smaller than the Karoo, they don’t have answers to the challenges of Africa and much of the world. Our teams of 15 players in any game can win; just set one’s mind in the correct gear, the 4th gear.

• Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and CEO of Nuclear Africa (Pty) Ltd, a project management company based in Pretoria. He does consultancy work in strategic development.