Cognitive computing, robotics and automation feature prominently in most projections of the future workplace. In fact, the automated workplace became a major focus of the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

The roots of the Fourth Industrial Revolution lie in the original Industrial Revolution that began with the 1770 invention of steam power and led to the transition from hand production to mechanized production with inventions such as the cotton gin, the steam engine and machine tools. The first Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in human history, on par with the domestication of animals — but its full realization evolved over decades.

The Second Industrial Revolution began around 1870 with large-scale iron and steel production, the invention of electric power and the internal combustion engine, and the enormous expansion of railroads and telegraph lines that accelerated the spread of people and ideas. Then, in the 1970s, the Third Industrial Revolution laid the groundwork for the Fourth by introducing electronics, computing and information technologies that further automated production and enhanced industrialization.

The Third Industrial Revolution introduced key concepts involving artificial intelligence, robotics and automation. Manufacturers like and Ford Motors have used automation to maximize efficiency on assembly lines and in warehouses. The Fourth Industrial Revolution began with the emergence of the internet, connected devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine communications and machine learning. What makes the Fourth Industrial Revolution distinct from previous eras is both the pace of transformation and the scale of its implications for business strategies and operations.

The migration from the simple digitization of Third Industrial Revolution to the advanced computing now available is forcing companies to reexamine the way they do business. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be essentially shaped by cognitive computing and other related technologies — including innovative combinations of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, quantum computing, augmented and virtual reality and more. These interrelated advances are poised to transform how and where work is performed.

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