Warwick Congress 2019: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Warwick Congress is an entirely student run event that aims to bridge the gap between Finance, Economic, Politics and Law, uniting these disciplines through talks and seminars by leading academics and industry professionals.

A reflection by Bronwen Roberts (Second Year LANS student)

LANS students at Warwick Congress

Warwick Congress 2019 was themed around the concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. An era characterised by developments in technologies spanning robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and fully autonomous vehicles amongst other technological fields. A group of our second year LANS students were privileged to attend the conference, which featured a range of talks by industry experts including Artificial Intelligence Strategist and Business Integrator Abhijit Akerkar.

The speakers throughout the day exhibited fluctuating levels of optimism regarding the steady infiltration of artificial intelligence into our industries. The growing strain of optimism throughout Akerkar’s reflections on using intelligence as a tool for business, the world and the individual outlined the failings of recent technological innovations from the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal to a deadly crash caused by the first self-driving Uber and Amazon’s facial recognition misidentifying 23 congressmen as criminals. Although these scenarios instil little faith in the prospect of the fourth industrial revolution positively transforming functionality and prosperity, Akerkar highlighted these examples as instruments of reassurance in the face of the negative implications history has led us to associate with industrial revolutions. A prominent fear emanating from the prospect of a fourth industrial revolution is widespread unemployment, we’ve seen it through automation and digitisation, if the software being developed can now not only process information but it can interpret data surely the future looks dim for human employment with these emerging technologies? Akerkar, however, used these examples of failed technologies to compound the necessity of humans within the development and utilization of AI. Humans must be kept in the loop not only as back-ups when technologies inevitably fail but maintaining the connection between the human / machine interface.

To further his optimistic stance on the fourth industrial revolution Akerkar highlighted the role of AI in business, with key themes being increased personalisation, efficiency and predictability. With the rising masses of data collected and stored by companies, our experience at the human / machine interface will become increasingly personalised based on our individual preferences, consumption history and product needs. For businesses, perhaps Akerkar is right to outline this truth as a fantastic profit optimisation tool used by firms to exploit, determine and predict our consumption habits yet my fear lies in the diminishing agency of the consumer. My initial reaction to the data protection debate was one of nonchalance, they can’t force me to spend my money so what harm can be done to me if I have a few more adverts for the trainers I was researching a week ago appearing on my screen? However, my increasing fears lie in the agency of firms holding my personal information to start to determine my future consumption habits as opposed to them simply encouraging me to purchase the shoes I’ve been eyeing for a while. Is this promised increase in “personalisation” really an emerging trend in marketing pursuits or is it simply a series of algorithms using basic data to divide generations into groups and cater our digital experience to conform to the consumer profile group we have been pigeon holed into. This act of profiling thus transforms the whole human race into a series of consumer profiles who will eventually all fall into identical habits of consumption as we’re brainwashed into absorbing the digital content designed for the characters our online habits project. 

Akerkar discusses another key benefit to these technological developments as being increased predictability in business, as this falls into the ‘buzz-term’ of ‘Big Data’, not only will firms be able to exploit the personal data retrieved through endless customer account sign-ups and online activity but firms can accumulate masses of data from their own investments, profits, products which can be processed on a bigger scale than ever before in order to facilitate the prediction of future trends.

Although the necessity for humanity in controlling the human / machine interface and maintaining levels of creativity and innovation in our industries was evident throughout the weekend, the Warwick Congress 2019 left me with a steady fear regarding the implications of the fourth industrial revolution. The benefits seem to lie in corporate buzzwords such as ‘trend predictability, ‘production efficiency’ and ‘personalised consumer experiences’, these admittedly profitable features contain an underlying sense of fear to me as the line between human and machine is blurred through the engineering of human consumption habits through algorithms. This increasing indoctrination by large firms monitoring innumerable masses of data eventually converts the human race into a series of cloned robots possessing identical consumer habits and online behavioural traits.