INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

Now is the time to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Murat Sonmez of the World Economic Forum and speaker at the Annual GPCA Forum gives his views on the impact of the new digitalized industrial revolution


Can you give a brief definition of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Is it here and now, or still on its way?

The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third Industrial Revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production.

Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third. This digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

A new era is unfolding at breakneck speed. It has huge potential to address some of the world’s most critical challenges, from food security, to reducing congestion in big cities, to increasing energy efficiency, to accelerating cures to the most intractable diseases. But it also raises a host of social and governance issues that need addressing.

Do you see it fundamentally changing the way the chemical industry is organised and operated?

Everything is impacted. Industries and companies need to think and act quickly. In this new phase of civilization, it is important to adopt a human-centric approach. We are at an inflection point.

Technologies could become the playthings of the privileged few. We have to make sure that the progress we are making benefits all of society. We must ensure that algorithms driven by vast data harvesting are trustworthy; that artificial intelligence and machine learning are as ethical as they are intelligent; and that data ownership is clear.

These questions and many more are coming at us faster than we can formulate answers. Given the speed and scale of the changes, and the slow pace of processes defining governance models to handle them, present solutions to these questions are being rapidly superseded. The value of information is decreasing as the volume of information is increasing.

If you are behind this curve, you are operating in the “too late zone”. It is important that industries and organizations are thinking and acting quickly to adapt. Otherwise, they could get left behind.

What are the key points that are relevant to the chemical industry in general and the GCC petrochemical industry in particular?

Artificial intelligence and blockchain is going to transform how many industries evolve, and the chemical industry is no different. Industries that rely on global shipping and trade will see key inflection points over the coming years.

Blockchain’s peer-to-peer security architecture, transparency and rapidly evolving features such as smart contracts and tokens make it an ideal platform. Blockchain could increase the efficiency and lower price points for ports.

There must be a way to ensure data comes from trusted sources, otherwise data-derived algorithms may be skewed by “fake data” being pumped into the system. This authentication must be highly secure, cross-industry and not under any single governmental control: a perfect opportunity to use blockchain.

What should senior chemical executives be looking at first as they respond to the technology and the potential benefits it can bring?

There are a few things executives need to keep in mind. Artificial intelligence and machine learning represent new ways of addressing some of the most intractable problems we face today by accelerating the formulation of solutions faster and in new ways than human experts can. Yet to function, these technologies need access to data.

Looking at how your company is capturing data and the tools you have is important. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the volume of data companies have access to is growing every day. It becomes more imperative than ever to be able to sort through the noise and find the connection between the data points.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning could be one way to help filter the noise. At the World Economic Forum (WEF), we use AI and machine learning to sort through 200 news sources in over 10 languages. The technology produces one paragraph summaries of the top content and filters that to our executives and business leaders. Our Transformation Maps platform helps us stay ahead of the too late zone.

Can you give 2-3 specific examples of changes that have already happened in this sector because of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

During a recent visit to India, I was informed by government officials that at state hospitals, there is one doctor for every 12,000 citizens. It is impossible to build enough hospitals and train enough doctors to meet the demand, particularly with the population continuing to rise.

What if, once a week, we could swallow or sniff a nanoparticle – later flushed out of the body – that would collect and securely upload our cellular data and vitals to the largest scientific knowledge base? After consultation with an AI-assisted doctor, a personalized formula for medication could be downloaded to the person’s mobile device, to be 3D-printed at a kiosk.

Using this science-fiction-like (but completely possible) model, personalized medicine could be delivered to hundreds of millions of people, rich or poor, without the need for building hospitals and training doctors. This technology exists and could be implemented today. What we are waiting for is the politics and protocols to govern this technology.

Existing regulatory frameworks and governance models are getting in the way of such advances. During the WEF’s recent Latin America Meeting in São Paulo, the head of a national innovation agency shared a story about his daughter, an oncologist in the US, who devised a blood test to detect pancreatic cancer long before traditional methods.

When she needed data from nearby hospitals to validate the test, existing privacy laws prevented the hospitals sharing the data. Those laws were written at a time when such innovation was not a possibility.

Where do you see the GCC region in terms of adoption and implementation compared to the rest of the world, particularly the West?

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is the fast fish, not the big fish that wins. Any country or region can leapfrog ahead if they embrace the principles of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and move toward agile policymaking.

The UAE was one of the first governments to join our Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. The appointment of a minister for AI is unique and indicates the country is looking forward.

“If you are behind the curve you are in the too late zone”

Murat Sonmez

Managing Director and Head of Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution & Global Network, World Economic Forum

How are jobs in the GCC region going to be affected by this revolution?

As technological breakthroughs rapidly shift the frontier between the work tasks performed by humans and those performed by machines and algorithms, global labor markets are undergoing major transformations. These transformations, if managed wisely, could lead to a new age of good work, good jobs and improved quality of life for all, but if managed poorly, pose the risk of widening skills gaps, greater inequality and broader polarization.

As workforce transformations accelerate, the window of opportunity for proactive management of this change is closing fast and business, government and workers must proactively plan and implement a new vision for the global labor market.

In our recent Future of Jobs report, across all countries and regions, employers expect that significant reskilling will be needed by a large share of the global workforce over the 2018 to 2022 period. Remaining competitive in a global context and taking advantage of emerging job creation opportunities will require a well-skilled local workforce bolstered by national lifelong learning ecosystems.

Region-specific roles expected to be in growing demand include financial and investment advisors in East Asia and the Pacific and Western Europe and assembly and factory workers in Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa.

Almost 90% of companies are looking to automate work and hire new permanent staff with skills relevant to new technologies. The top emerging skills for the Middle East and North Africa region include analytical thinking and innovation, critical thinking and analysis, systems analysis and complex problem-solving.

These are all skills that require advanced training as more traditional roles are lost to automation.