Tech Must Ally with Other Disciplines in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

We are in the midst of unprecedented, exponentially accelerating innovation that is altering the way we work, live, interact and create. Fueled by technology, this innovation encompasses practically every discipline.

Many, particularly the World Economic Forum, believe that we are entering a new era, that of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the era of convergence where the physical, chemical, biological, behavioral and increasingly, the social world will be integrated in unprecedented ways. Understanding that engineering, computer science and technology will be the enabling drivers, we have coined — for several years now — this convergence as “engineering + X” (X being whichever problem, discipline or arena in which engineers engage).

In describing this interdisciplinarity, I use James Maslow’s hierarchy to classify needs, opportunities and useful purposes. These are: sustainability, health, security, and (in a collective basket of its own), the joy of life. Convergence and engineering + X are necessary to address needs and advance useful purposes in each of these categories. Consider sustainability, where, for example, technology will need to partner with the natural sciences; health, where it must partner with medicine and biology; security, where it must partner with policy and law; and the joy of life, where it must partner with education, entertainment, communications, social and behavioral sciences and the arts.

Useful purposes invariably have unintended consequences, which are increasingly powerful as technology reaches higher peaks. Nuclear power was intended to advance sustainable energy — but is also being used for nuclear weapons. The internet and the communications revolution allowed unprecedented communication, self-empowerment, made the world a tighter-knit community and advanced mutual understanding and prosperity. But it has also enabled cyberattacks and the dissemination of hatred on social media.

There are concerns that artificial intelligence and machine learning — fundamental pillars of this technological revolution — will be on a collision course with humanity. Or, that advanced manufacturing will lead to a very different future of work.

Nevertheless, engineering, science and technology is leading the convergence of disciplines to solve to a great extent the fundamental questions of Maslow’s hierarchy, starting with the most essential: sustainability, health and security. In the process, it will free human activity towards resolving societal challenges, promoting the joy of life and the pursuit of happiness in terms of personal and societal growth. A slew of emerging technological breakthroughs will underpin this transformation from the Internet of Things to AI and machine learning, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology.