4, April 2022

What the Fourth Industrial Revolution means for Alberta

Alberta’s economy is going to be radically changed by the fourth industrial revolution, but not necessarily in ways you might expect.

First of all, some context:

The First Industrial Revolution (roughly from 1760 – 1830) started in Britain and involved the mechanization of many tasks done manually, initially using water power but then steam power became dominant. Many industries were affected including textiles, mining, agriculture and iron making.

The Second Industrial Revolution (roughly 1870-1914) involved the development of railway and telegraph networks and the spread of electrification through the whole economy. It also saw the beginning of mass production, and the rise of the automobile.

The Third Industrial Revolution (roughly 1960-2010) was driven by the development of computers and digital controls and communications and the adoption of digital controls in many manufacturing plants. It also saw the rise of the personal computer.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, starting about 2015 ???  can be thought of as an extension of the Third Industrial Revolution, involves the use of  a bundle of technologies such as artificial intelligence, gene editing, nanotechnology, internet of things, data visualization, 3-D printing and quantum computing. These technologies can have the effect of further increasing automation and opening up entirely new fields such as self-driving vehicles and virtual reality.

Although the term “revolution” sounds as if it happened quickly, in fact these revolutions took 30-40 years to be fully adopted. This is illustrated in the graph below for the adoption of electrification and personal computers:







Percent of households with electric service and personal computers1


Effect in Alberta.

At first sight you might think that we would see two separate industries in Alberta – the traditional resource industries and a new high tech industry based on the new technologies. I believe nothing could be further from the truth. The resource sectors are taking the lead in many ways in adopting the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Some examples:

  • Suncor is introducing 150 autonomous electric trucks at its oil sands mines in Alberta
  • Willie Banack and Nick Banack help operate a 2,800-hectare (7,000-acre) grain farm in the Camrose area. They use new agricultural technologies, from light bar GPS guidance for machinery to auto-steering technology and more sophisticated apps that collect and analyze data from the field.
  • Flash Forests is a Canadian company that uses drone reforestation technology and hardware, aerial mapping software, automation, and biological seed pod technology to reforest boreal areas at a rapid pace. It plans to plant a billion trees by 2028.
  • At the Olds College Smart Farm, soil sensors precisely measure the moisture, temperature and pH balance of the soil, while drones equipped with multispectral cameras take detailed images that capture details invisible to the human eye. GPS and yield monitors attached to combines gather data that helps generate detailed yield maps. All this data can then be utilized by farmers to reduce the risk associated with decisions about when to start planting, how much to seed, where to apply fertilizer or pesticide, or to understand why one area is more productive than another.
  • Copperstone Technologies, founded by three graduate students from the University of Alberta in 2014, builds robots for hazardous site investigations. For mining, the robots can traverse waste areas called tailings ponds, which can be dangerous for humans to navigate. They recently won an international competition for new mining technologies.

So the fourth industrial revolution will have a major positive impact in Alberta.

However, not all impacts will be positive. It is possible that it will lead to a segregation of jobs into “low skill, low pay” and “high skill, high pay” segments that will exacerbate social tensions. The World Economic Forum has flagged this as the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So buckle your seat belts. The fourth industrial revolution is going to be interesting.

Peter Josty

  1. “The Power of Creative Destruction” by Philippe Aghion, Harvard University Press, 2021, page 47