World War I was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, with a death toll estimated to be up to 22 million. Yet the horrors of the war heralded the beginning of the post-industrial age we know today. Will we similarly look back on the COVID-19 pandemic as an accelerator for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?

Technological advancement cannot compensate for the loss and suffering of World War 1, but the war helped to drive progress and innovation in many fields. Mass production and industrialisation took great strides forward. From blood banks and zippers to stainless steel and teabags, the war left us with many everyday items we take for granted today. And while radio and aircraft were invented before World War I, the war sped up innovation and adoption in these fields.

Likewise, COVID-19 has helped to catalyse innovation and progress in many fields as scientists, businesses, governments and healthcare workers toil to mitigate the effects of – and ultimately end – the pandemic. The unprecedented effort to create, test and start deploying viable vaccine candidates in under a year is just one example.

Reorganising the workplace

Another lies in how COVID-19 has triggered reorganisations of the workplace, starting with the rapid enablement of remote working even in companies and industries where work-from-home or telecommuting were unheard of. Furthermore, COVID-19 has already helped to accelerate adoption of two cornerstone 4IR technologies: advanced robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

“The pandemic is forcing all of us to appreciate how much we rely on 21st-century technologies—AI, the internet of things, social media, digital learning platforms, augmented and virtual reality, drones, 3D printing and so much more—to keep us healthy and to transform economies,” writes Sanjeev Khagram at The Economist Intelligence Unit.

“The unprecedented context is simultaneously driving us to become far more reliant on breakthrough digital, biological and physical technologies and far more inventive about how we can use these emerging technologies to create value in new ways…The COVID-19 pandemic is a major test for us as a species: a transformational window of opportunity. Will we seize it?”

Time paints a vivid picture of how pandemic-fuelled tech adoption is already changing workplaces worldwide: “[Robots] were suddenly cleaning floors at airports and taking people’s temperatures. Hospitals and universities deployed…a salad-making robot…to replace dining-hall employees; malls and stadiums bought… security-guard robots to patrol empty real estate…Companies closed call centres employing human customer-service agents and turned to chatbots.”

The end of work that is dirty and dangerous?

The upside of this scenario is that people could be relieved of jobs that are dirty, dangerous or boring, with the social distancing and lockdown requirements of COVID-19 dramatically speeding up our move to a more automated world. The risk is that millions of workers could be left behind by the speed of change with no time to reskill or transition to new roles.

Indeed, many jobs may already have been permanently lost where algorithms and machines have stepped in when it was safer for humans not to go to work. MIT research cited in the Time article estimates that up to 2 million jobs might be lost to machines by 2025, with the incentive to replace people with automation stronger than ever.

World War I’s legacies, good and bad, were numerous, including the Bolshevik Revolution, a contribution to the emancipation of women, redrawn borders in the Middle East, and fertile conditions for World War II. Now, our challenge as we accelerate adoption of the technologies of 4IR is to learn from history and choose how we will shape an inclusive and human post-pandemic future.


[Photo by Kevin Ku from Pexels]