J K Rowling has yet to write a book called “Harry Potter and the Fourth Industrial Revolution” but she might want to consider it – it’s something that will affect us all and there’s more than a little bit of magic involved. But what exactly is it all about?
The Fourth Industrial Revolution – IR4.0 for short – is a catch-all term for a wide range of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, 3D Printing, Autonomous Vehicles and Blockchain, to name but a few aspects of it. Already it is affecting all our lives, at work and at home, in ways we often barely notice. For instance, that friendly “how can I help?” window that pops up when you are searching online for insurance is almost certainly a ‘chatbot’, a computer whose algorithms have been programmed to understand your requirements and answer your questions. More and more industries are using these technologies to automate their processes, removing the human element (hence making them more consistent – and saving money!) whilst making them faster and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Even in situations such as clinical diagnosis – which has previously required highly trained doctors – there are now advanced apps that can screen and diagnose illnesses without human intervention, amidst claims that they can be more accurate than a human doctor. In reality, there may still be a stage where a trained human reviews and confirms the work of the computer but a lot of the ‘legwork’ has been done by the machine.
There are two ways in which this matters to UKAS. Firstly, these technologies open up new possibilities that UKAS – and its accredited customers – could use for assessing the performance of a product, system or individual. To some extent, we have already seen this from the step-change to remote assessments brought about by the pandemic. UKAS has been a pioneer of remote assessment techniques and will soon be launching an online certificate verification database utilising distributed ledger technology (also known as blockchain) that will ensure everyone who relies upon UKAS accredited certification can be sure of the accuracy and validity of their suppliers’ certification.
Secondly, and more importantly, the world in which we operate is going to change significantly. As more and more activity takes place in a virtual way, for instance within the unseen confines of a computer’s algorithms, the way UKAS – and UKAS customers – carry out assessments is going to change. There will be less physical evidence to examine. Whereas before we may have asked “Show me how….”, in future, the assessor will be asking for proof that what happens within a ‘black box’ gives the required outcomes. In many ways, the question is the same but the ways of demonstrating the answer will be quite different.
At the start of 2021, UKAS set up a small internal Steering Group to examine the issues that IR4.0 presents to UKAS and to its wider stakeholders, including end-users. As part of this work, we carried out a social media survey of our stakeholders, receiving responses from as far away as Argentina and Mauritius, but it was notable that many stakeholders had little idea of what IR4.0 was about or how it would affect them. We followed this up with a series of roundtable events where we held in-depth discussions with groups of IR4.0 experts, customers and stakeholders, including government departments. One important theme that emerged from these roundtables was the need to set appropriate guiding principles at an early stage, which could range from a simple directional framework at one extreme to full-blown regulation at the other. In the coming months, we will be developing these discussions further and will be expanding our Steering Group to involve external contributors from across the spectrum of our work.
One recent output from this work was the paper published in July by BEIS in conjunction with UKAS and its UK Quality Infrastructure partners entitled ‘Standards for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which forms part of the government’s wider industrial strategy. The full paper can be found here https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1004999/Standards_for_the_Fourth_Industrial_Revolution.pdf