The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is a broad framework or umbrella term covering data and technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), and their links to physical objects, such as infrastructures, cars, homes, and cities. It represents important and very real trends, but unfortunately, most of the commentary about it—both enthusiastic and critical—takes a technological determinist view. Most people assume that new technologies directly shape society, either generating new wealth or corroding democracy, rather than recognizing that society can shape the direction of research and development (R&D) and decide how technologies are used.

A decade ago, many civil society leaders and commentators hoped that nonprofits would play a significant role in the development of new platforms and services based on 4IR technologies. Instead, for-profits like Uber and Airbnb have dominated the field. I have been closely involved as a funder and investor in some of the contenders, and have seen the struggles to turn “platform cooperativism” (the idea of running Internet-based taxi, childcare, and other services as co-ops rather than traditional businesses) from a promising concept into a plausible option for running services at significant scale.

There is a serious risk that the next generations of AI could follow a similar pattern, where commercial business and some governments dominate the development of technology, and civil society becomes a powerless bystander. However, there are also opportunities for the social economy in all its forms to strategically shape the development and application of 4IR technologies to achieve social good.

The 4IR was first promoted as a concept by the World Economic Forum, and businesses and some governments have enthusiastically embraced it. Civil society’s response, on the other hand, has been limited. Existing scholarly literature on the possible social impacts of the 4IR is nascent, often quite thin, and often centered around general principles related to ethics rather than detailed impact analysis. Much of it focuses on the ways AI could threaten values like truth, peace, and democracy through algorithmic warfare; the proliferation of fake news or deep fakes; algorithmic bias built into decision-making tools, particularly in fields like criminal justice; and the potential abuses of facial recognition and other tools.

Read the full article about the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Geoff Mulgan at Stanford Social Innovation Review.