The Fourth Industrial Revolution Will Rock Our Worlds, But At What Cost?

Will a world with technology suffused everywhere actually help us build the future we want?

If you’re reading this on a laptop, look down for a second.


That QWERTY keyboard you have in front of you has forever been “de-optimized for humans,” says Grad Conn, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer. The layout was devised more than a century ago to help telegraph operators better transcribe Morse code (not to prevent typewriters from jamming, a commonly cited origin story).

Conn is optimistic that the future is much brighter and easier to use. Today’s products are increasingly designed differently–with the consumer’s preferences and real needs at heart. Tomorrow’s products will be even more intuitive. “The interface can be voice or a gaze. As tech becomes more powerful, we can be more human, and conform less to machines,” he told a full room at the Microsoft Technology Center in New York City, an event hosted as part of the Fast Company Innovation Festival. He asked the crowd to imagine every surface within reach as a computing surface.

We all buy things to meet certain needs and always have. But we’re just entering a personal marketing age, where it’s not humans or catchy slogans or flashy ad campaigns that are the most effective vendors. It’s machines built to understand our habits, decision-making processes, and even our deepest desires better than we sometimes do ourselves, he says. And that’s now done by processing and analyzing all the data that we produce in our everyday interactions with our devices and our world.

While we’re not in the thick of it yet (think of all the poorly-targeted ads you see online), before too long your wired kitchen will not only hear you say “I wish I had a [insert kitchen device],” but also suggest the product you need, in your price range, and in the color you want.

“In this era, every company is a data company, even Disney World,” says Microsoft digital marketer Randy Choco, citing the park’s wristbands that track visitors throughout the park. In this sense, a stroll around the world-famous amusement park is no longer just a fantastical adventure (with your kids), it’s a technology experience.

And what’s surprising is that it turns out to be a perfect fit with the brand, which is about “magic,” says Choco. “The best technology is almost invisible. And with the wristband, it’s helping you have a better time at the park, and you don’t even realize it’s happening.”


The promise of the fourth industrial revolution–characterized by “a fusion of technologies” that draw from the physical, digital, and biological world–goes beyond a hyper-connected future in which we’re all talking to our devices all the time or enjoying the freedom of a computing surface everywhere. For businesses, it’s about engaged customers, transformed products, optimized operations, and empowered employees, says Conn. (It’s unclear whether that’s a good thing for us everyday people who are not corporate entities.)

That future could be nice, all the massive privacy concerns aside. But even then, I have some reservations. Already, the vast majority (86%, according to Conn) of CEOs consider going digital to be their No. 1 priority, saying technology will transform their business more than any other trend. The deepest investments are going into technology, but those leading the charge don’t quite seem to project confidence about the radical transformations on the horizon. And, arguably more concerning given our increasing dependence on AI, the number of women in computer science-related fields is dropping despite a concerted push to diversify the industry.

The tech sector is in the habit of solving first-world problems first. So, will this new industrial revolution actually help us build the future we want? And how many of us will suffer from modern-day miasma?


About the author

John Converse Townsend covers smart solutions to social problems, as a writer and social media producer for Fast Company. He likes: black coffee, Paul Pogba, and long runs.