The Third Industrial Revolution
This article is based on a longer version published in The Tracinski Letter.
We're in the middle of a decade-long economic depression, and we're in an era of retrograde statist politics. (The two developments are not exactly a coincidence.) But as with the first Great Depression, scientific and technological progress has not ceased.
The forces at work are too big to be halted merely by one incompetent or malevolent leader. The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and their result, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, have already radically transformed human life. But they are only just getting started. A new set of innovations in technology--the Internet, robotics, "artificial intelligence," biotechnology, and how they are all integrating together--are about to launch a new era.
Over the past decade, an enormous investment has been poured into the growth of "social-mobile" information technology, which is also sometimes called "Web 2.0." This is a term for the transformation of the Internet from static websites accessed on a PC to richly interactive sites, particularly social media like Facebook, that is accessed on a variety of devices like smartphones.
Which is what we're all doing already, implying that the social-mobile revolution has been accomplished and it's time to start asking, "What's next?" Well, Silicon Valley is already starting to move on the next ambitious new idea: breaking down the barrier between the "information economy" and the clunky old manufacturing economy.
The basic concept that is the springboard for this integration is the "Internet of Things." Up to now, the Internet has mostly been used to move around and manipulate information--anything that can be reduced to ones and zeroes and digitized. But that is a big limitation, and imagine how much greater the power of this information technology would be if it could also be used to move, alter, and manipulate actual physical objects in the real world. In other words, what if we stopped playing around with "virtual reality" and started doing things in real reality? But to do this, the Internet needs to be able to connect to physical objects, to sense them and monitor them and move them around.
Some of the most interesting applications of this idea are industrial, but to give you an idea of how revolutionary this is, let me start with an example that is agricultural: a long and fascinating interview with the inventor of a "virtual fence" system for cattle ranchers which operates on something of the same principle as an "invisible fence" for dogs. Not only will this eliminate the expense of building miles and miles of fencing, it will also make it possible for ranchers to make better use of their land, for example by directing cattle from an overgrazed section of land to one that is underutilized.
So apparently the Internet of Things will include the Internet of Cows.
But the biggest, most immediate application of the Internet of Things is in manufacturing. Here is how this is described in a profile of a start-up that is focused on improving the capabilities of factory-floor digital cameras.
"While the guys who are working the lines might pull out their iPhones when they leave the gates of the plant, mobile and web technology is not heavily used at many factories. Here's an example. This is a part that one of their customers makes that goes into engines. [Follow the link to see the image.] And the marks on this metal tell the story of the process that went into forming it: what condition the metal was in at what temperature, etc. Each of the little lines and the distances between those lines are significant. This metal contains data, in other words, that its manufacturer would like to track. The first step is to scan the product into a computer. Then Sight Machine takes it from there.
"'We do a bunch of machine vision. We analyze the image Photoshop-style and pull out all the different features and measurements they want,' said director of R&D Katherine Scott. 'We give them numbers. We can show them historically how they are doing with different data sets.'"
All of this naturally connects to the increasing use of a wider variety of industrial robots. See this profile of a company that develops inventory robots for warehouses. The link is worth following if only for the accompanying video, entitled "The Nutcracker performed by Dancing Kiva Order Fulfillment Robots," but watch this video to get a more exact idea of how the system works. The kicker to this story is that the company's founder "was unable to find funding in Silicon Valley." Expect that to change--especially since the firm's backers just sold the start-up to Amazon for $775 million.
These companies are working on helping the Internet of Things "see" and measure physical objects and move them around. The next step is to be able to manipulate those objects, to work on them and perform the kind of detailed assembly and fine adjustments for which we now rely on human labor.
The New York Times recently published a long and very interesting overview of the development of agile industrial robots.
"At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.
"At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human."
The key issue is that the cost of this kind of robotic technology is rapidly going down, even as its capabilities are expanding, making robot technology economical for a wider and wider range of jobs.
The technology is also getting more flexible. Another company has developed a kind of all-purpose small robot for manufacturing, which can (it claims) be reprogrammed easily by a small company to perform simple repetitive motions. "Rethink's goal is simple: that its cheap, easy-to-use, safe robot will be to industrial robots what the personal computer was to the mainframe computer, or the iPhone was to the traditional phone."
This is just scratching the surface of a whole revolution in robotics. And it is part of a broader "hardware renaissance," the switch in emphasis--for inventors, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists--from purely digital manipulation of data to using information technology to do things and make things. As the New York Times puts it, "hardware is the new software."
At the center of all of this are 3-D printers: machines that can take a digital file and translate it directly into a physical object by depositing layers of material on top of one another, much in the same way that a 2-D printer forms text on a piece of paper by laying down one line of ink at a time.
The term applies to a variety of different manufacturing systems, which are also known as "additive manufacturing" because an object is built by adding layers of material rather than carving the object out of a larger block of material, as you would with a digitally controlled milling machine.
"Many different technological routes can be taken to reach the same goal. In one variation, nozzles spray liquid material into layers. Another method, which produces even better results, aims laser beams at finely powdered material, causing the grains to fuse together at precisely the spot where the beam hits. All 3-D printing techniques, however, follow the same principle: The object grows layer by layer, each one just a few hundredths of a millimeter thick, until it acquires the desired shape....
"Assembling, screwing together, adhering, welding-all these processes are rendered obsolete when even the most complex shapes can be produced by a single machine using this casting technique....
"The printing of electronic components is even in the works. American corporation Xerox, for example, has developed a silver ink that functions as an electrical conductor and can be printed directly onto plastic or other materials, making it possible to integrate simple circuits into printed objects."
The implications are broad, from the economical production of products in small quantities, to a quick way of obtaining replacement parts (which is how 3-D printers are already being used by the US military in Afghanistan), and the ability to design products with a complexity and internal structure--such as spheres within spheres--that could not be produced through any other method.
In a different direction, one professor has developed a system for 3-D printing a house by laying down layers of concrete. This is still a bit ahead of its time, but 3-D printing with colored plastics is already becoming standard for creating stunning architectural models. And the most practical version of this kind of technology at the moment is a precision layout robot for construction projects.
We can sum up all of these developments as a Third Industrial Revolution.
I came across that term in a blog post attempting to refute the notion that we are entering a low-innovation era in which advances in productivity are likely to peter out. Maybe they will, but for reasons having to do with politics and its suppression of growth and investment. It will not be because of any scientific or technological limits to innovation. But the concept of a Third Industrial Revolution as presented there is rather ill-defined. I would define the stages of the Industrial Revolution in more fundamental terms.
The first Industrial Revolution was the harnessing of large-scale man-made power, which began with the steam engine. The internal combustion engine, electric power, and other sources of energy are just further refinements of this basic idea. The second Industrial Revolution would be the development of interchangeable parts and the assembly line, which made possible inexpensive mass production with relatively unskilled labor. The Third Industrial Revolution would not be computers, the Internet, or mobile phones, because up to now these have not been industrial tools; they have been used for moving information, not for making things. Instead, the rise of computers and the Internet is just a warm-up for the real Third Industrial Revolution, which is the full integration of information technology with industrial production.
The effect of the Third Industrial Revolution will be to collapse the distance between the design of a product and its physical manufacture, in much the same way that the Internet has eliminated the distance between the origination of a new idea and its communication to an audience.
The point of this overview of the new revolution in manufacturing technology is not to boost any of these particular companies or any particular technology. Some of them are undoubtedly overhyped, others will be superseded, many will turn out very differently between now and when they make it to market--and there will be other new innovations that are even better which we won't see coming. But there is such a wide convergence of new technology that we are compelled to recognize the vast possibilities that are opening up. We may not be able to predict exactly what this future will look like, any more than Watt and Boulton could have predicted all of the myriad uses of their steam engines. But we can sense that we are at the beginning of a Third Industrial Revolution that has the potential to transform our lives as much as the first two.