In the last quarter of 2017, I had to learn something new fast and write about it – Industry 4.0. Wikipedia says that, essentially, ‘it’s the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies’. Yes. At first glance, it all sounds like gobbledygook.
As I worked on the article, though, I began to wonder how this trend would affect the publishing industry. Would we writers and storytellers respond favourably to it? How could we automate the writing process? Could robots write our stories for us? What if they started writing their own stories? What would they say about humans? Ah… the many questions, permutations and combinations.
Let’s see if I can narrow all this down a little. For a start, the term Industry 4.0 refers to the fourth industrial revolution. The steam engine marked the first industrial revolution which had the largest impact on the transportation industry. Then came electricity which marked the second industrial revolution and changed the face of the manufacturing industry. After this came the internet which gave rise to services such as e-commerce. Now, with the fourth industrial revolution, the idea is that everything is being driven by technology.
Revolution of Perfection
With Industry 4.0, the internet is no longer limited to exchange of information among people. Machines will now talk directly to each other. In the future, there will no longer be rows and rows of factory workers doing the same tasks. Instead, these will all be automated. A robot will control these machines and there will be little or no manual labour involved in the whole process. Reducing our dependency on humans, we eradicate human error, thereby, achieving a stable or higher productivity rate. In this brave new world, Industry 4.0 pillars of computers, automation and robotics will be integrated.
The fear that many people have now is that they’ll be left behind if they do not embrace Industry 4.0. There are multiple examples to show how all sorts of people are investing in Industry 4.0.
As recently as two days ago, I received a link to an online video where robots were now being used in a kopitiam (coffee shop). While there were still humans who took orders and greeted you, it was the robots who served the food. And they seemed pretty polite about it.1
Then there’s the shoemaker who wants to have robots greet you at his stores in Malaysia. That robot will take measurements of your feet and, after you’ve chosen the right pattern, the robot will send all the necessary data via the internet to his ‘counterpart’ (presumably another robot) in a factory in Italy. Lo’ and behold, you’ll have your custom-made Italian leather shoes delivered to your doorstep. And you didn’t even have to leave the country.2
In China, there is now an orthopaedic robotic system that assists surgeons to carry out surgeries on the extremities, pelvic fractures and the whole spinal segment (cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral vertebrae).3
Reading all these Industry 4.0 examples, it occurred to me that we weren’t entering Industry 4.0. We were, in fact, well into Industry 4.Perfection.
Was I ignoring Industry 4.Perfection at my peril? I mean, see what happened when Kodak refused to embrace the digital camera? I, therefore, made a concerted effort to join an online community. Horror-of-horrors, I registered for a Facebook account. I began to look at software that could help automate my writing and publishing endeavours.
How Much Lonelier Can We Be?
As sure as the sun rises each day, the moment I decided to embrace all this new stuff, the universe sent me vital lessons and challenges to put one baby toe in to join Industry 4.0. It began when my old lap top died and I lost all my email contacts. The old mobile phone was so clogged up that I couldn’t take a single photo without an annoying message popping up to tell me that I’d run out of storage space. Storage space? On a phone? I tried formatting my phone. Twice. What was I? An involuntary hoarder of digital nonsense?
Anyway, I finally listened to my telephone guy who said I had no choice but to invest in a new phone. While mulling over the money I’d have to spend, I chanced upon an article that made me rethink this whole Industry 4.Perfection. The writer had struck up conversation with a young businessman. Since his was a one-man-show, the businessman didn’t need to rent an office space. What he wanted, however, was to become part of a ‘co-working office’.
Trusty old Wikipedia explains that ‘Co-working is a ‘style of work that involves a shared workplace … Unlike in a typical office, those co-working are usually not employed by the same organi[s]ation.’ This young man preferred the co-working office because he wanted to be around people to have a sense of belonging.
A few days later, I met some friends for coffee. One of them had lost a tremendous amount of weight in the last 12 months. We assumed that it was because she’d finally used the expensive gym equipment her husband installed in their home.
“No,” she replied vehemently. “I joined a gym.” Responding to our incredulous looks, she said, “I was so bored in the house. I wanted to see other people.”
The common thread in these stories is that both of them were lonely and needed human interaction. It occurred to me that we writers are already solitary people who often work alone. If we embrace this Industry 4.Perfection, how much lonelier will we be?
Robotic Show and Tell
To add to my concerns, I then read a NYT piece by Alex Williams who feels that ‘a jobless future for mankind looms as robots make their presence felt.’4 He refers to a book written by Martin Ford (Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future) and says that with Industry 4.0, we’re not replacing old machines with new ones and still keeping the humans. We are getting new machines to replace us.
One by one, Williams discussed the professions where humans will no longer be needed. Then, there, in writing were the words I feared – even journalists [read it as ‘writers in general’] are delusional if we think we’re not going to be affected by these robots. ‘The Associated Press,’ he wrote, ‘already has used a software program from a company called Automated Insights to churn out passable copy covering Wall Street earnings and some college sports, and last year awarded the bots the minor league baseball beat.’
Trying to end the piece on a positive note, Williams mentioned Andrew McAfee, a management theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. McAfee feels that ‘[r]estaurants that have very good hospitality staff are not about to go away, even though we have more options to order via tablet.’ Obviously, neither Williams nor McAfee have visited that kopitiam in Malaysia.
And what of the article I wrote that started all this thinking in the first place? Well, even with a new laptop and WiFi, it was impossible for me to meet the deadline. The monsoon season was upon us and the technician who came to check our internet lines informed me that the floods had caused state-wide disruption to the internet connection.
As I deactivated my Facebook account to connect with ‘real’ friends, I was left with this one, still-unanswered question: In the time of Industry 4.Perfection, will a robot be able to control the weather?
(15 January 2018)
 Meals on wheels at this kopitiam
Ivan Loh – https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/01/06/meals-on-wheels-at-this-kopitiam-ipoh-outlet-hires-mechanical-staff-to-improve-service-efficiency/
 Putting his best foot forward
Joy Lee – https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/smebiz/focus/2017/12/18/putting-his-best-foot-forward/
 First robotic surgery a huge success
The Online – https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2018/01/10/first-robotic-surgery-a-huge-success/
 Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?
Alex Williams – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/style/robots-jobs-children.html
Aneeta Sundararaj fears social media and aims to ‘go local’ rather than ‘go global’. Read mores stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).