The fourth Industrial Revolution has swept the world, leaving its indelible impact on the shop floor, in stores, offices, boardrooms and beyond. The fusion of technologies that characterises this revolution has triggered a wave of transformative change, impacting society in ways we could not have imagined earlier and at a pace that we have not seen before.

The benefits of digital technologies are many. They have the power to revolutionise society as, for the first time, the disadvantaged have access to information, services, skilling opportunities and markets that can enable them to improve their lives. However, as in the case of the earlier Industrial Revolutions, this one too, brings formidable challenges for society. The frenetic speed of digital adoption and the entry of machines is making the skills of millions of people irrelevant almost overnight. It also raises the need to determine what a machine should do and which tasks should remain under a human’s purview.

As a result, the conversation in technological and business circles is moving from a purely business-focused view of technology application to one that is more human-centric. Business benefits such as higher productivity, better decision-making and improved customer engagement will continue to drive digital growth. But the themes of Industry 4.0 are already countering conventional business thinking. Supporting human values through technology, building consumer trust in an era of robotic solutions and the limits to deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) are the issues generating debate among corporates today.

A few immediate steps can aid the transition, as technologists and business leaders strive to humanise the digital revolution.

Building trust

Around the world, the trust deficit is growing. Concerns about the misuse of data by government institutions and businesses — especially with the frequent incidents of cyber attacks — have eroded people’s faith in the way data is being stored and managed.

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that people trust only those relationships that are within their control. Globally, as many as 75 per cent of people trust their employers to do what is right for them. But only 47 per cent trust the media, while 56 per cent trust the business world and 57 per cent trust non-governmental organisations. Moreover, the trust gap between the informed public and the mass population has grown to a record 16 points.

Only true transparency on the part of business leaders about data protection and usage can now regain public confidence. Proactive policies are also urgently needed to restore people’s faith in new technologies.

Cultivating empathy

Every day brings new points of intersection between humans and machines, allowing AI and machine learning (ML) to take critical decisions about human lives. We are applying data and AI to understand human behaviour and predict actions, monitor health parameters and diagnose medical conditions, and identify potential criminal activity for better law enforcement.

An advocate of empathy-driven AI, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes the world will have an abundance of ‘artificial’ intelligence but a scarcity of ‘real’ intelligence and human qualities like empathy. The need, therefore, is to apply AI with a human touch. Every solution should be evaluated through the lens of the person who will be impacted by it, rather than only for its technology capabilities.

Being fair and equitable

The connected world and the democratisation of technology gives us a wonderful opportunity to remove disparities, provide open access to information, services, capital and skills, and create a more equitable and inclusive society. However, we must learn from the previous Industrial Revolutions and ensure that technology does not serve the interests of only a few. Hidden biases or imbalances in data can skew algorithms, leading in turn to skewed decision-making.

Wikipedia is a prime example of how even an open platform, that crowdsources content from all around the world, can perpetuate existing prejudices. Only around 18 per cent of the biographies on Wikipedia are of women — a fact that prompted Jess Wade, a research scholar from UK’s Imperial College, to write a page a day through 2018 to correct the bias.

The impact of the fourth Industrial Revolution will continue to be felt as digital technologies mature and find newer applications. The planet already has more connected devices than human beings.

As the machine population grows and becomes more powerful, we must remind ourselves of the primary aim behind developing machines: to improve and enrich human lives. If we keep this fact as our focus, we will have achieved our goals for the fourth Industrial Revolution.

The writer is Group CEO, WNS and Chairman, NASSCOM