Dr Kelvin Kemm
Dr Kelvin Kemm

Much-heralded 4IR is 'like bricklaying with atoms' in modern society

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 21, 2020

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By Dr Kelvin Kemm

JOHANNESBURG - We regularly hear of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The mental image created is one of advanced computers, robotics, artificial intelligence, and so on. This is wrong.

The 4IR is much more a case of just using intellect to come up with good functional solutions, but using the tools now available in modern society. I like to think of it as “bricklaying with atoms”, associated with using sophisticated systems integration.

Let us think of the systems part first. If anyone looks at a picture of an ox wagon, one can see how it works. If someone were to give an instruction to build an ox wagon virtually any company can agree and then get together people who can make the wheels, shape the wood, and so on. One good foreman plus a few technical skills like how to make metal wheel rims, will ensure product delivery.

In contrast, think of an Airbus aircraft. Imagine that someone says: “build one”. That is a totally different situation. There is not one single human being on the entire planet who knows how to build an Airbus.

An Airbus is built by means of large-scale systems integration. There are groups of people who know how to fabricate wings, groups who can produce the avionics, others who can make the pressure-resistant fuselage, and many more. Then there are the systems people. These are the ones who know how to bring the wings and the fuselage together, but only after the electrical wiring has been integrated into the wings. Eventually this whole giant complex system results in an aircraft which flies. A significant part of the 4IR is the ability to conceive of complex system, and then to assemble functional teams. Before I get on to the “bricklaying with atoms” part, let us think of the other industrial revolutions. The First Industrial Revolution is recorded as being from about 1760 to 1830. That was when cottage industry collected into groups. So instead of 20 women in 20 cottages all spinning cotton, it was found that if you collected all 20 into one place and formed them into a production line, in which they didn’t all do the same job, then productivity went up. New machines came about to aid spinning and weaving, and so the systems combination improved the total output and reduced prices.

The Second Industrial Revolution was from about 1870 to 1914 when the First World War started. During this time period oil and electricity were developed. Oil led to petrol for cars, and lubricants for large machines. Electricity led to communications and other machines. People in England could send messages to America, with astounding speed. These new “tools” revolutionised communications and transport, as other people figured out how to use them commercially.

The Third Industrial Revolution was from 1969 to 2000, the historians tell us. That was the period of electronics development. Integrated circuit chips gave rise to all sorts of possibilities.

Now we are in the next phase, which future historians will possibly record as lasting for about three or four decades, post-2000.

We now have the ability to do bricklaying with atoms. The term nanotechnology is thrown around a great deal. Nano essentially means atom size. A hydrogen atom is a tenth of a nanometre (nm) in size, while a Caesium atom is three times larger. Some silicon chips have advanced 0.5nm layers built into them, but when someone refers to a 22nm chip, it means the distance between the tiny embedded electronic devices.

Nano, or atom bricklaying, is not confined to electronics. Technology now makes carbon-fibre for example. That is the same carbon that is in braai charcoal. The difference is how the carbon atoms are arranged. Carbon-fibre construction is really strong. Strong enough to make aircraft wings and bodies, as was done in South Africa years ago. A South African-developed carbon-fibre aircraft was built and flew really well. Fibre optics is essentially just long glass strands, through which laser beams are passed. The laser is imprinted with communications messages. Staggeringly there are incredibly long glass fibres which travel under the ocean from Mtunzini on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, through to London and Mumbai.

So now we have atomic-level tools to build electronic and mechanical things. We can see atoms with microscopes, as is done in Port Elizabeth, and we can move atoms around to build a precise atomic pattern. We have the systems intellect to put these together to make aircraft and robots, and to integrate Artificial Intelligence into them so that they effectively think for themselves. We see the results in an aircraft autopilot, and the robotic car-body welding in the Ford plant in Pretoria.

The country requires African solutions for African conditions. Solutions which work for us. So 4IR is a case of deep creative thinking, using atomic level tools plus the ability to build complex systems. This brings multiple elements together to produce a resulting productive output. The 4IR concept is not a case of buying fancy things from somebody else, and then putting robotics into the school syllabus so that our kids know which buttons to push. Constructive thinking, using advanced techniques to tackle our challenges is what the 4IR frame of mind is all about. Thinking at an atomic level and conceiving of complex systems at the same time, is where the future lies.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and the CEO of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants. [email protected]


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