Andrew Yang Keeps Talking About the Fourth Industrial Revolution. What the Heck Is That?

Klaus Schwab lacing his fingers in front of a mic onstage at a World Economic Forum on Africa meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, on Sept. 5.
Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, coined the phrase “fourth industrial revolution.” Rodger Bosch/Getty Images

Andrew Yang likes branding. He calls his marquee policy idea—a universal basic income of $1,000 a month—a “freedom dividend.” He has a plan to give Americans money they can donate to political candidates of their choice, which he’s called “democracy dollars.” And lately, he can’t stop talking about “the fourth industrial revolution.”

What the heck is that?

The fourth industrial revolution is the shorthand Yang now uses to describe the wave of massive technological change that he believes has decimated manufacturing employment and will soon automate away millions of American jobs. He dropped the slogan three separate times during Tuesday’s primary debate and even got Joe Biden to repeat it. “The fourth industrial revolution is now migrating from manufacturing workers to retail, call centers, transportation, as well as to white-collar workers like attorneys, pharmacists, and radiologists,” Yang warned at one point. “These are the problems that got Donald Trump elected, the fourth industrial revolution,” he explained at another.

If this all strikes you as the sort of futurist buzzspeak you’d expect to hear at a rich guy conference or printed on a consultant’s slide deck, well, that’s because it is. The Fourth Industrial Revolution was the title of a 2016 book by Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, and was a theme this year at the group’s annual summit in Davos, Switzerland, which brings together the world’s jet set each winter to hob knob and listen drowsily to panel discussions before hitting very expensive private parties.

Many economists would tell you that we have lived through three industrial revolutions. The first started with the steam engine, the second was brought about by advances like electricity, and the third saw the rise of computing. Schwab says we’re at the start of a fourth, which he describes as “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” Think artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, self-driving cars, 3D printing, biotech, cybernetics, and such. At Davos, Schwab wanted attendees to contemplate not just how these new innovations could usher in brilliant new advances for business and humanity, but also the danger that they would lead to greater inequality. (Which is good and conscientious of him.)

Is Scwhab on to something? I mean, maybe? It’s futurism. Nobody knows. A lot of these technologies really are changing the world in subtle and important ways—aerospace manufacturers have started using 3D-printed parts, for instance—and could have a large impact down the line. But if you have an ounce of cynicism in your body, it’s hard to read or watch too much about this stuff without rolling your eyes like a TikTok teen. In a World Economic Forum video from 2016, experts offered up predictions such as “Our bodies will be so high-tech we won’t really be able to distinguish between what’s natural and what’s artificial,” and pondered the possibility of a “new renaissance.” It’s self-serious, Star Trek–style sci-fi for people who wear expensive suits and maybe have an endowed lab at Harvard.

These are the intellectual waters Yang swims in, and that’s disconcerting. Aside from the fact that these conferences tend to be pretty intellectually bankrupt—even JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon has joked that “Davos is where billionaires tell millionaires about what the middle class feels”—they by definition reflect the interests and values of the global capitalist class. At the World Economic Forum, wealthy and powerful people congregate to talk about fixing the world without really challenging the interests of the wealthy and powerful (lip service to the challenges of inequality aside). Worrying about the hypothetical harms that a “fourth industrial revolution” could cause tomorrow rather than the real issues posed by trade or tax havens is a pretty good example of such vision.

This is one of the uncomfortable things about Yang. He seems well-intentioned and concerned about the middle class. A lot of smart people on the left like the idea of a universal basic income. They might like some of his other ideas, too, like publicly funded elections or regulating the use of artificial intelligence by businesses or eliminating the penny. But he embodies a kind of Silicon Valley liberalism that would rather use the safety net to cushion the blows of capitalism than actually disrupt the interests of big companies. And intentionally or not, his talk about an imaginary robot apocalypse serves as a distraction from issues like corporate power and trade, and can be an excuse to avoid topics that actually threaten the bottom lines of companies like Facebook.

During Tuesday’s debate, Yang waved away the idea of using antitrust rules to go after tech giants, basically by repeating the words 21st century a couple times. “What we have to do is we have to hone in on the specific problems we’re trying to solve and use 21st century solutions for 21st century problems. Using a 20th century antitrust framework will not work. We need new solutions and a new toolkit.” It’s just the kind of thing you’d expect to hear at Davos.