The Fifth Industrial Revolution

We hear a lot these days about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. There are people who refuse to acknowledge such a thing – there was one industrial revolution, and that’s all there is to it. If this is you – you may as well skip this post. If you don’t consider the possibility that we are entering the fourth industrial revolution, I’m not interested in convincing you it might be fun to consider what the nature of the fifth industrial revolution will be.

(Here’s a rather dire spin on the implications of the 4th Industrial Revolution, just to set the stage)

While pondering the first 4 industrial revolutions, I have sought an uber-simple way to describe each of them. Generally, the descriptions involve a lot of words, a lot of classifications, a lot of quantifications, a lot of ambiguity – in general, when you try to get to the bottom of what those things are, all you get is more levels of complexity.

So, I’ve come up with a few simple words, single words, each of which end in “al“, to describe all four – or five:

  1. Mechanical
  2. Electrical
  3. Digital
  4. Virtual
  5. Neural

I’m comfy with these. They do describe the revolutions in question. The do all end in “al“. And, as a cherry on top – they get shorter as we move from the past to the future.

The Neural Industrial Revolution? Madness, you say.

But allow me to elaborate. During the 1st Industrial Revolution, we not only created machines, we created machines capable of creating things. Printing presses, lathes, steam engines, powerful stuff. During the 2nd Industrial Revolution, we harnessed the electron to distribute power without having to use other machinery to move fuel around. During the 3rd Industrial Revolution, all of our information became portable, the way power did during the 2nd – with everything digitized, we no longer need to use, or transport, physical media to transport a “copy” of the information.

(To quote the article I posted above, “Nineteenth century steam revolutionised first transportation then factories (1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions), then last century digital technology overtook analog (the 3rd Industrial Revolution).“)

The current, or 4th Industrial Revolution is a little less simple to quantify – because we’ve only just begun and can’t see the implications of what we’re doing as clearly as we can the things we’ve already accomplished.

(Again, to quote from the article I posted above: “Policy makers are looking at worst-case scenarios of technology making people’s skills obsolete, economically devaluing them.” Come on, that was true of each and every technological advance since the beginning of time, not just the ones that could readily be classified as “Industrial Revolutions“)

But, to use the obvious example to illustrate both sides of the coin, consider professional drivers. These days we speak of “self-driving cars”. We seem to be of the belief that it won’t be many years before these are acceptable – normal – ubiquitous – freedom-loving people are already dreading the day when they are actually forbidden from operating their own beloved motor vehicles on the roads. Self-driving cars could not arise from the first 3 Industrial Revolutions – somehow, the real world on the road needs to be “virtualized” in the processors of the car, for the car to be able to safely navigate the real-world situations that are used to create the “virtual” environment that the car uses to make its decisions.

This is either a boom or a bust, depending on whether you think people should be able to make their living through the operation of vehicles – or whether you think that we’ll be better off as a society when people don’t have to squander their productivity doing something machines can do for them. We no longer require oxen to plow a field – and I say, good! We have better things to do. Requiring oxen to plow a field was no more dispensable than requiring people to operate taxis and transport trucks.

During the 4th Industrial Revolution, the boundaries between the real world, the virtual world, and machinery, are breaking down. We can set up a virtual version of our manufacturing facility, swap out some key processes with new ideas, and run the virtual facility to see if profitability is increased. This obviously costs a great deal less than trying the same experiment in the real world, with real manufacturing facilities.

All of these things are well documented – and from this blog, I’ve linked to a number of articles that speak of it in terms of it being real, it being accepted, and it being something we will have to learn to live with. Or, thrive upon as the case may be.

During the 3rd Industrial Revolution, we dabbled in virtualization. But it did not significantly influence the real world in a life-changing way. And we can see, at the dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution, as virtualization gives us some really good stuff to chew on and make us more productive, people are dabbling in neuralization.

As an example, here’s an article I just saw – that inspired me to ponder Industrial Revolutions and virtualization and neuralization, and to take the whimsical step of formulating one-word descriptions for Industrial Revolutions past, present, and possibly future:

This is out there. This is not going on, in a production capacity, the way the virtualization of manufacturing facilities and self-driving cars are. But, much as we experimented with things like “Virtual Reality” during the Digital Revolution – we’re experimenting with them today.

And, much as the Digital Revolution was predicated upon the Mechanical and Electrical Revolutions – and much as the Virtual Revolution is predicated upon the Digital Revolution – the Neural Revolution isn’t really in the cards until we have secured many of the fruits that will be yielded by the Virtual Revolution.

Lofty words, I know. I look forward to stumbling upon this post deep in the future, to see how on-the-mark, or how out-to-lunch I am today with these sweeping prognostications.

Thanks for reading this!


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Author: Pete

Editor-in-Chief, Lead Software Developer and Artistic Director @

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