The history of mankind does not follow a linear trajectory. The leisurely pace of evolution is often disrupted and turned upside down by revolutionary events. We have reached the threshold of a new industrial revolution. Should we be fearful, or should we, rather, welcome this as a great opportunity for our small country?
The nature of our civilization and the way human lives, relationships, and movements in society are organized is shaped by three key technologies: the energy industry, the transmission of information, and transport. Economic activities are coordinated by communication technology, while the energy industry provides them with energy and transport facilitates their movement. All major changes of the economic paradigm are, the American economist and visionary Jeremy Rifkin believes, linked to these three technologies. When all three undergo significant innovation at the same moment in history, a completely new infrastructure emerges, transforming the economy, the labor market, and, ultimately, the whole of society. An industrial revolution, as we understand it, is triggered.
At the dawn of time, people had supplemented their own power with water, wood-fueled fire, and livestock, which provided their local sources of energy; information travelled slowly, by word of mouth or recorded on parchment and delivered by human messengers on foot or, at best, on horseback or by boat. This was in line with the transport possibilities of the time, which limited greater mobility of the labor force, and thus most people’s lives, from birth to death, had taken place in just one place, in the same geographical locality. Adventurers and intrepid travelers had been the only exceptions that proved the rule. This changed little until the advent of the first industrial revolution.
The first technological disruption took place in the mid-nineteenth century; its hallmarks were the invention of the steam engine, the avail-ability of cheap coal, and the telegraph. It is worth noting that a transformation of information technology occurred at the same time as handwrit-ten news was replaced by steam-powered printing presses and later by the telegraph; this was accompanied by changes in the energy industry, with coal replacing wood as the energy source, as well as changes in transport – travel on foot or horseback was replaced by trains that were much faster on a network of railways that connected places distant from each other. All of a sudden, it became possible to travel quickly a sizeable distance for work, or transport large amounts of goods and materials. The steam engine and the telegraph began to transform a localized way of life into a global one at an ever-accelerating pace.
The First Two Industrial Revolutions Resulted in Centralization
Later, in early twentieth century, came the second industrial revolution, epitomized by the telephone, television, electricity, cheap oil, and the automobile. Information suddenly travelled fast and wirelessly across vast distances. Instead of railways, a network of roads and highways was constructed. Henry Ford’s production lines churned out a combustion engine car for everyone. The suburban lifestyle took hold, with car ownership symbolizing freedom and social status. Both industrial revolutions resulted in an unprecedented yet inevitable centralization, bureaucratization, top-down management, and mass production; small firms were replaced by centralized factories, very large-scale business transactions became the norm.
The global society that is emerging is no longer based on hierarchy and mediation but on decentralization and direct sharing between individuals on the global net.
The accumulation of capital is a precondition of the functioning of a centralized energy industry and production, the competition for exclusive resources is its consequence. Exclusive, because coal, gas, or oil but also uranium can be extracted only in certain places. The need to protect exclusive resources is related to the birth of the nation state and the establishment of standing armies.
We form our worldview on the basis of our experience of how things work. As we do so, we easily succumb to the illusion that the way things are organized is immutable, a kind of given that is externally determined. In fact, this organization has always been the work of man and man alone. Both industrial revolutions brought about a way of life that we became accustomed to regarding as the norm, as the natural order of things.
The real core and driving force behind the latest technological revolution are advanced material technologies, with nanotechnology playing a key role.
We have come to expect sustainable growth and a steady improvement in the existing state of affairs without any change to its foundations. In 1949, the prestigious journal Popular Mechanics predicted that in future the weight of computers might not exceed 1.5 tonnes. In those days nobody expected the rampant growth of electronics, digitalization, and the emergence of a global information network that would interconnect the world as it happened towards the end of the twentieth century.
Computers have shrunk enough to fit into mobile phones, the capacity of microchips has continued to grow exponentially following Moore’s law. One day our generation might be labelled people of the carbon era, but at the same time we are also the generation that has reached another turning point, on the threshold of a new industrial revolution, on the threshold of a world where nothing will be the same as before, yet incapable of fully grasping what to expect when the old economic and social model comes to an end.
Linking AI and the Human Brain
As the human psyche, by definition, resists anxiety and the fear of the new and unknown by naming and structuring things, labels such as Industry 4.0, Labor 4.0, The Second Age of Machines, or the Digital (or 4t) industrial revolution have lately proliferated in the social discourse.
If, however, we look at the impending change from the point of view of the three key technologies—communication, energy industry, and trans-port—what we see is the third technological disruption in the history of mankind, that is, the third industrial revolution, which is ultimately likely to have a major social, and probably also geopolitical, impact.
Communication has moved online and takes place on the global net – the Internet; a decentralized energy industry is gaining ground, turning every house literally into a micropower station. According to some estimates, transport will be fully automated within ten years, the human driver replaced by sensors working in conjunction with artificial intelligence. The boundary between the physical and virtual world will also cease to exist as physical objects will gain a digital form and will be generated locally by 3D printers.
The futurologist Ray Kurzweil’s vision may well come true and the digital network may end up being permanently embedded in the human brain. In January 2016, scientists from several countries tested a safe graphene/neuron interface. In parallel, work on a quantum Internet is proceeding apace. The global society that is emerging is no longer based on hierarchy and mediation but on decentralization and direct sharing between individuals on the global net. Vertical hierarchical order is changing into a lateral networked one. People are interconnected, physical distance ceases to play a key role, and technology helps to make us far more locally independent of centralized resources and management.
The consumer of the first and second industrial revolution capitalism is turning into a prosumer of the shared economy, one who actively produces, consumes, and also shares economic activity by means of networks. The prosumer is a new type of human being, who produces a significant proportion of values free of charge, just for fun and the joy of being recognized and sharing with others. The incoming Generation Y no longer sees its identity as based on ownership of things but on attitudes to service. The era of the car as a social status symbol is coming to an end.
A Fixation on the Traditional Automotive Industry Might Be Disastrous for V4
After 1989, the Visegrad countries in general and the Czech Republic in particular saw a sharp rise in the automotive industry’s share of the GDP and exports. However, the third industrial revolution is breaking up the old business model in transport and bringing about fundamental change, as the car turns into a service and the driver is about to be replaced by driverless cars steered by artificial intelligence. This is expected to result in a radically optimized human transport. Larry Burns, General Motors’ former vice-di-rector for research and development, has calculated that a single shared driverless car will eliminate up to 80% of vehicles from the road.
Hence it is evident that the new transport economy model will dramatically reduce car production. Addressing the Frankfurt conference “Into the Future: Europe’s Digital Integrated Market” in January this year, Jeremy Rifkin said that each shared car will eliminate 15 cars from the production line. It follows that this will have a disastrous impact on the economies of the V4 countries unless they transform the structure of their industries. This is a fact that nothing can change, not even, as many believe, digitalization and complete automation of existing factories and production processes. So, does the third industrial revolution pose a threat to the V4?
The Internet, robotics, and digitalization are, contrary to appearances, not the primary cause of the disruptive change, they are merely its tools. The real core and driving force behind the latest technological revolution are advanced material technologies, with nanotechnology playing a key role. This began to emerge in the 1980s with the advent of electron microscopy. It is not, in fact, a new field of industry but rather a new technological tool, which offers huge opportunities for improving production processes and efficiency, improving productivity and technological progress in nearly every field of industry. Large data storage and the further miniaturization of processors is now taking place on a nanoscale, at the level of molecules and atoms.
Key Industries of the Future: Information Technologies and Nanotechnologies
Over the coming years, nanotechnology will make a significant contribution to improving the effectiveness of energy production from renewable sources and finding cheap ways of accumulation. Invisible nanosensors combined with smartphones are also very likely to turn into flexible mobile labs. The evolution of the Internet of Things and 3D printing is related to nanocomposites, materials that combine exceptional mechanical and electrical properties, surpassing those of traditional materials.
Smart materials are beginning to emerge. To put it in simplified terms, this is a kind of material that, in addition to its basic purpose, can also do something more thanks to the use of nanotechnology. For example, in January 2016, MesoGlue, a Boston start-up, unveiled a super strong metallic nanoglue that will replace the welding and soldering of metal parts. Meanwhile in Australia, scientists at RMIT are developing self-cleaning textiles that spontaneously clean themselves when exposed to light thanks to a catalytic reaction in their nanostructures. A nanocomposite made of graphene used to produce ultralight airplane wings is another example of smart material.
The future does not belong to steel, nuclear power plants, or petrol-fueled transport relying on cars. The future is in nanofibers, graphene, smart materials, the shared economy, and decentralized energy industry.
Graphene, invented in 2004 by two scientists at Manchester University (in 2010 they received the Nobel Prize for their invention) is an exceptional nanomaterial: a hundred times stronger than steel, transparent, pliable, and almost superconductive. In fact, it is just a form of carbon with a special chemical reactivity, and it occurs everywhere. It can be used to produce bendy touch panels, printed electronics, and ultralight construction parts that are, at the same time, extremely strong. Are we about to enter the era of graphene, in which foundries and steelworks disappear, replaced by 3D printing of graphene composites?
The global market for nanotechnological products keeps growing in volume and by some estimates will reach 3 billion USD by 2020. In the coming decades, nanotechnology will clearly become, alongside information technology, a key industry with an impact on the growth of global economy. Countries with specialists in these areas will become leaders of economic transformation and quite certainly prosper the most. The Czech Republic is in an excellent position, not just in terms of Visegrad and the EU, but on a truly global scale. From the very onset of this technological revolution this country has been literally one of the world’s nanotechnology incubators.
Although the first nanotechnology firm was founded in the US in 1997, only seven years later Professor Jirsák’s team at Liberec Technical University came up with the Nanospider, a device for the industrial production of nanofibers, with “industrial” being the key word, demonstrating that alongside the US, the Czech Republic was among the first to move nanotechnology from the lab to the industry. Nanotechnology is currently the core business of some forty companies in the Czech Republic, surpassing in per capita terms even Germany next door. We are also at the cutting edge of electron microscopy, with electron microscopes made in Brno used by top-ranking global laboratories including MIT in the US and the Weizmann Institute in Israel.
Over the next ten years, nanotechnology is likely to be used world-wide primarily in the following areas: nanosensors, big data, smart materials, and the energy industry.
The Third Industrial Revolution Presents an Opportunity for the Czech Republic
We have to keep bearing in mind that these areas cut across various industries as, for example, nanosensors can be used for online monitoring of individuals’ health, ocean pollution, or as a part of a driverless car in transport. The Czech Republic is very strong in nanofiber technology, applicable to the textile industry, filtration, and biotechnology.
Thanks to their small diameter, nanofibers are an ideal material for use in biomedicine, as stem cells can easily attach themselves to them, and they can be used to grow replacement tissues and organs. However, they can also serve as a casing for wounds, preventing infection during the healing process. All of this is based on the principle that nanofibers, themselves a thousand times thinner than a human hair, can be used to grow membranes whose pores measure mere tens or hundreds of nanometers.
That means that a piece of nanotextile can be filtered on molecular level: while a smaller molecule of air or water will pass through, a larger molecule of dirt, allergen or various microscopic pathogens will be trapped. Czech nanotechnology firms are already producing nanomembranes for industrial air-filters, antiviral masks for people suffering with disorders of the immune system, and anti-dust mite bedding for people with allergies.
Nanomembranes in water purifiers can even filter out the Ebola virus. Moreover, they can also be used for food industry filtration. The latest innovation, unveiled by Czech nanotechnologists earlier this year, is a nanofiber filter for vintners. Compared to standard pad filters it loses less pressure, can be regenerated, and does not need to be rinsed before filtering, thus increasing the filter’s overall performance and saving its users money on cellulose pads, in addition to its technical properties. Work is ongoing on broadening this technology to oil, beer, or spirits filtering.
According to a study published last year by the prestigious Irish agency Research and Markets, nanofibers in the near future will be the most rapidly expanding area of application and driving force in the growth of the global nanotechnology market. In addition to nanofibers, the Czech Republic boasts further state-of-the-art nanotechnologies and patents, such as photo-catalytic air purification by means of smart coating of building fronts and interiors, flat lens nanooptics for lighting in supermarkets, streets, and car lights, antibacterial clothing, hyaluronic acid-based nano-cosmetics, or a groundbreaking 3D battery with a separator made from inorganic nanofibers.
Rather than being a threat, the third industrial revolution represents a great opportunity for the Czech Republic. Thanks to our achievements so far in advanced materials technology, we could join the ranks of world economic leaders and become a technological jewel in the heart of Europe and an example to the other Visegrad countries. We have what it takes – we just need to move from short-term planning to a vision for the decades to come.
The business model and way of life associated with the second industrial revolution are coming to an end. The future does not belong to steel, nuclear power plants, or petrol-fueled transport relying on cars. The future is in nanofibers, graphene, smart materials, the shared economy, local dematerialized production, living in the extended reality of the global net, and decentralized energy industry. I often say, exaggerating slightly, that we are a small nanocountry, almost invisible to large states, but at the same time we are nanopioneers, one of the world’s top nanotechnology specialists. It is entirely up to us to ensure that we do not squander this great opportunity in the twenty-first century.
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