Written by IEEE | October 1, 2019

Whether you know it or not, the fourth industrial revolution – nicknamed Industry 4.0 – has already begun. Automation, or the process of a computer performing the tasks and reasoning of a human being, is leading the forefront of technological advances that will impact how we live and work daily. We sat down with Lee Coulter, IEEE Working Group Chair on Standards for Intelligent Process Automation, to learn more about some of the automation tools and processes changing our lives, and the importance of systemizing guidelines to become a fully digitization of human work. 

Industry 4.0, timeline of the industrial revolutions

Q (IEEE): Why is automation considered the fourth industrial revolution?

A (Coulter): Compared to the first industrial, second industrial and third industrial – which was the computer or information age–, the fourth industrial revolution is the digitization of work. I tell people that, when you get into task automation, you’re actually taking your first baby steps into digital transformation and you’ve entered the fourth industrial revolution. Several things are converging that make this possible. The cost of computing is effectively zero, and the cost of data storage today is effectively zero as well; it’s only going to keep getting cheaper. Our ability to collect the data necessary to create data models that can provide intelligent orchestration of digitized work are made possible. What started as simple task automation is rapidly moving to intelligent automation that is fundamentally transforming work. There are whole functions of business performed by people today that just won’t exist in 10 years. 

Robotic process automation and robotic desktop automation are unrecognized by many as the first step in that digital transformation of work, because now we’re actually using the activity of intelligent automation to take us to an end-to-end process with sophisticated tools like machine vision and machine speech. The kinds of work that people have said, ‘you’ll never be able to do that with a computer’–people are actually doing it with computers now.

Q: As it relates to Innovation in Infrastructure, what are the sectors most likely to be impacted by automation?

A: The shipping industry is an excellent example of the shifts changing infrastructure and supply chain management, and what process automation has done for ports is pretty remarkable. Most people are not aware that while we all talk about self-driving cars, self-driving cargo vessels and boats are out there now.

And with the entrance of 5G, it is going to enable us to bypass the need for cables. So all of a sudden, the IoT revolution occurs. Bridge sensors, as an example, will be able to remotely monitor for bridge stress cracks and the need for service. Manual inspection will become a thing of the past. Several cities in the U.S. are now using traffic cameras, machine vision and machine learning to identify potholes. These systems then automatically schedule repair crews to come out and manage the infrastructure. Parking garages are using cameras to detect how many free spaces are available in real-time and then make that information available to users on an app.

Learn more about the benefits of 5G

Q: Why is the IEEE 2755.1 standard so critical at this moment as we enter the fourth industrial revolution?

A: IEEE 2755.1 is important to the fourth industrial revolution because it is a significantly important step in the digitization of human work predominantly in large enterprises where significant administrative processes are required. In a very short period of time, these new intelligent automation products arrived on the scene. There was no guide on what these products do, how important are the things that it can do or how to measure them. So in this standard, we took the approach of describing what each feature or function is, declaring why it’s important, and then telling the reader how they should approach that feature to determine to what degree it is present and its level of sophistication. IEEE 2755.1 explains intelligent automation products and what they do; accelerating a business’s ability to start digitizing work. This lays the foundation for a road map of more advanced digitization of work where you’re engaging in things like machine vision, natural language processing and machine learning for machine-based decision making to end up with a fully digitized process, or as the popular press describes it, digital transformation. It is not possible to “digitally transform” anything until the work is digitized. Intelligent Automation is the first step to digitizing work that can then be transformed.

IEEE 2755.1 is the first published industry standard that provides in-depth product selection and detail on each feature’s importance to guide large businesses in their selection process of automation platforms. Learn more about IEEE 2755.1 and its guidelines here.