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Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and the environment

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Temasek Foundation Connects: While there has been much discussion about the impact of the 4IR technologies on economic productivity, the focus here is on how these technologies can be consequential for the environment. The environmental impact of economic activities – from the extraction of resources to processing, and then to usage and finally to disposal – is not sustainable. 

Natural resources are finite, and at the end, disposal is not sustainable as well, as landfills are also finite in nature. 4IR technologies can be deployed in the different areas of consumption and production to improve the efficiency of resource use, reduce pollution and the overall environment footprint of economic activities.

Monitoring for efficiency and verification

Networked sensors and drones can monitor the surroundings and the environment and detect illegal exploitation of resources. Artificial intelligence (AI), such as one developed by Google’s DeepMind, has already been used to reduce energy usage. 

A blockchain-like mechanism could be implemented to keep track of resources, such as in the food industries. Drones can be deployed to monitor wildlife movements, and to protect wildlife from poachers; drones with sensors attached can also track the health of crops for farmers, and help them to use fertilisers and water more precisely.

Recycling, leading to the circular economy

At the disposal stage, AI and robotics can be combined to create more efficient recycling processes. AI-powered robotic waste sorting systems, developed by Sadako Technologies and ZenRobotics for example, help to reduce materials recovery facilities’ operating costs, speed up their processes and improve the quality of their output. 

Their efficiency is supported by advances in machine learning in image recognition, sorting plastics accurately according by type. In addition, life sciences can be deployed to create enzymes that can break down plastic.

Recycling would be an important in the movement towards a circular economy, where waste (such as plastics) from one cycle of production and consumption can be used for subsequent cycles, reducing the overall environmental footprint. Possibilities exist, as with Apple’s iPhone disassembly robot, Daisy, breaking down the iPhone into its various components for resource recovery and reuse for other Apple products, and AHLMA, an apparels company in Brazil focusing on using recycled fabric in apparel production. 

The potential economic and social impacts of the 4IR technologies are quite clear – we know about the potential gains in productivity and the prospect of jobs displacement. What is less clear is how the same set of technologies is being deployed to improve the environment in various ways. This newsletter provides a glimpse of how the 4IR technologies can lead to positive impact in the environment.

Among the technologies described as belonging to the Fourth Industrial Revolution are artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. The World Economic Forum, continues to develop material for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To find out more about the Circular Economy, readers can find out more at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

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