During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution represented a great leap forward into an automated future bristling with promise and potential.
The advent of mass production, mechanisation and steam power transformed the world, underpinning previously unimaginable economic growth.
A century later, the second industrial revolution was powered by electricity rather than steam.
It ushered in mains utilities, the UK’s rail infrastructure and the telephone.
We didn’t have to wait as long for the third industrial revolution, which began around 1975.
Unsurprisingly, computing was the dominant theme, from early networks through the 1980s home computing explosion, followed by the internet and modern web-enabled devices.
Some observers believe we are now standing on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution – one powered by information and the internet.
Neither of these are new concepts, with the internet dating back to the 1960s and information as old as mankind. Yet they could be about to transform human society once again.
May the fourth be with you
Definitions of the fourth industrial revolution differ according to who you ask, but most observers agree it will see our lives altered forever by online connectivity.
Today, your home broadband connection is mainly used for gaming, streaming and reading articles like this, with the odd smart device (like a Hive or Ring system) also connected.
In a few decades, the internet might underpin every aspect of your professional and personal life, your health and your hobbies.
A vast network of interconnected devices will govern our lives – monitoring our health and proactively treating us, custom-manufacturing products to our requirements, and so on.
Automation will be the only theme continued from the three previous industrial revolutions, since this one will be powered by data.
Every Internet of Things device will be uploading data to central servers for processing and analysis as now – but on an exponentially larger scale.
The fourth industrial revolution will give us self-driving cars, intelligent medical robots, and quantum processors capable of solving the most complex mathematical issues imaginable.
New products, services and industries will be created, from AI home helps for dementia patients through to self-repairing robots.
Forthcoming technologies will fuse together the biological and the digital in ways which are hard to imagine today.
Clearly, this is a big deal.
However, achieving these ambitious goals requires effective data analysis. Pouring hundreds of billions of devices’ worth of raw data into a black hole won’t achieve anything in isolation.
It requires artificial intelligence, computing power way beyond what’s currently available, and sufficient internet bandwidth to transmit vast volumes of data in real time.
To support its ambition of leading the world in technological innovation, the Government wants every home in the UK to be able to access gigabit broadband by 2025.
However optimistic that target may be, our homes will need far more than today’s 11Mbps copper phone lines to exploit the potential benefits of the fourth industrial revolution.