Industry 4.0: A Brief Introduction

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Editor's Note: From time to time, The Journal of Civil Aviation Training (CAT) magazine presents Guest Commentary on important issues facing the community. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

This commentary is offered by Christian Popp, Chief Customer Officer of MINT Software Systems, a full-service supplier of sophisticated software products for the aviation industry and other training-intensive industry sectors. MINT TMS, a cloud-based system for digital records and qualification management, resource planning, and data mining, is used by more than 65 customers around the world, among them Emirates Airlines, JetBlue, FedEx, and Lufthansa Group

Industry 4.0: A Brief Introduction

Part 1 of 2

Recently, the ways technologies shape our professional and personal lives have been accelerating rapidly. The Covid-19 pandemic has boosted this acceleration even further.

Developments related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Industry 4.0 were well underway before the current crisis. Rather than allowing the stress to overwhelm us, consider the ways new technologies may help as we move forward into uncertain times.

In conversation with folks in the aviation community about Industry 4.0 and the role new technologies will play in the future, most fall into two camps: those who believe we have already gone too far (they fear the end of human civilization as we know it) and therefore resist innovation without differentiation; on the opposite side are the overly optimistic, who accept all changes without critical evaluation. As in most cases, reality rests somewhere in the middle.

Industrial Revolutions

Previous industrial revolutions liberated mankind from the reliance on animal power, pioneered mass production, and introduced us to the digital age. Industry 4.0 is fundamentally different. In this revolution, new technologies will fuse the physical, digital, and biological environments, bringing about a profound impact on all disciplines, economies, and industries. Ultimately, Industry 4.0 will reshape society and challenge our understanding of what it means to be human. How? Recent developments provide some clues.

Industry 3.0 gave us the digital capability to automate labor-intensive processes. While this was a huge step forward, most of this automation still requires human interaction. For example, through such developments as the Flight Management System, outcomes have improved in lateral and vertical navigation, performance calculation, and cost-index flight optimization.

Nevertheless, without a flight crew, our current fleet of airplanes will not fly. There is a real possibility this may change in the future; at that point, the mission of aviation training will change as well. In the meantime, the skills needed to operate in a digital transformational world will require a new set of skills and competencies for humans to learn and master. Besides changes to teaching objectives, the adaptation of new technologies will impact lesson delivery methods and the human learning experience.

Industry 4.0 integrates big data with machine learning and artificial intelligence, replacing the functions of many traditional white-collar jobs and skills, often making human operators redundant. For example, with a few clicks, we can communicate in another language (Google Translate), improve our writing (Grammarly), or create custom legal documents (LegalZoom), all with little or no human intervention.

Think about the possibility of data integration to measure training effectiveness and efficiency beyond the training setting, near real-time updates of training material synchronized with operational changes, student-centric training support to include training scheduling and delivery, and individualized curriculum design. Too good to be true? Is the impact of Industry 4.0 really so dramatically powerful and transformationally different from that of previous Industrial revolutions? Yes, because of both the kinds of changes and the rate in which these changes are taking place. Science fiction is becoming science fact at an exponential pace.

Exponential Change

Some things grow at a consistent rate, gradually increasing in an additive manner. Exponential growth means that the rate of growth itself is increasing, often leading to astonishing results. To illustrate, imagine walking 30 steps, each 28 inches in length. After completing 30 steps at this consistent rate, the total distance traveled would be 70 feet. Now imagine if it was possible to double the length of each successive step (28 inches, 56, 112, 124 …) to increase the distance covered exponentially. In this case, 30 steps would take us around the world 10 times, a counter-intuitive and astounding result.

When graphed, an exponential growth curve starts slowly, then rapidly becomes very steep – at the end almost vertical.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, posited that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every two years, while the cost of that chip would halve. Gordon’s prediction, aka the now-familiar Moore’s Law, has proven to be very reliable Today, however, the doubling of computing power (measured in computation per second – cps) happens every 18 months instead of every two years. If Moore’s Law continues to hold, microprocessors rivaling human brain capacity will be available by 2024, at a price of $1000.


Don’t be alarmed; machines will not replace humans. Computing speed alone cannot replace the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. Computing speed does not equal intelligence. Because of this, experts in the field of AI question the use of the word “intelligence” without a qualifier of narrow (ANI), general (AGI), or super (ASI).

Narrow AI (ANI) can accomplish focused tasks, like beating the world chess champion, but that is all it is able to do. We all currently benefit from ANI in many aspects of our lives, including anti-lock brakes, web-search engines, email spam filters, smartphone apps, and credit fraud protection. ANI will often accomplish focused tasks quickly and reliably, giving it the appearance of human-like intelligence and of being superior to humans.

General AI (AGI) goes a step further, with the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and from experience.

Someday, Super AI (ASI) may achieve a level of intelligence smarter than all of humanity combined, ranging from just a little smarter to, potentially, exponentially smarter. Currently, both AGI and ASI only exist in science fiction or movies.

ANI, however, is real and is here to stay. ANI allows machines to mimic intelligence in narrowly defined ways, enriching and improving our lives. This assumes we play an active part in charting the course forward.

The Human Advantage

While AI is incredibly useful and powerful – and becoming more so every day – we must not forget or undervalue the roles humans have and will continue to have. We must recognize that past, present, and future technologies originate from one source: humans. Paradoxically, the human ingenuity and imagination to improve, develop, and shape the world is exactly that which is fueling the disruption we are facing. Human-only traits, including creativity, imagination, intuition, emotion, and ethics, will be even more critical in the future as AI takes over mechanical computational tasks. While machines are very good at mimicking human traits, they fall short of being human.

The holistic business model of the future will require a mindset transformation, changing the focus from improving individual systems towards creating new ecosystems. Real and lasting value was, is, and will be created by humanity. Technology is not to be feared but rather embraced and transcended. All of us, individually and collectively, have the choice to inspire change or be driven by it. Technology represents the “how” of change, but humans represent the “why.”

Nevertheless, the way we work will never be the same, and the skills we will need will be dramatically different. So, what is our response? What will we do, and what are the opportunities in this most transformational time in human history? As you consider these questions, we must not relinquish control over the purpose and use of technology. Interestingly, back in 1939, French aviation pioneer and best-selling author Antoine de St. Exupéry wrote, "In the enthusiasm of our rapid mechanical conquests, we have overlooked some things. We have perhaps driven men into the service of the machine, instead of building machinery for the service of man."

How can those of us with no or only limited software programming skills and no engineering degree, shape a high-tech future? Consider this: although most of us are not architects or contractors, before we build a house we would shop around for ideas, concepts and learn about construction material. To define our likes, dislikes, and needs to guide and direct the architectural design. The same principle idea holds in this scenario.

For us to preserve mastery in a digitized world, we need to match the technical capabilities of new technologies with an application strategy for our benefit. To do that, we need a working, albeit basic understanding of these new technologies. Deliberation is needed on a large scale, as we should not leave our future solely in the hands of a few savvy engineers, or even worse – to chance.

"In the enthusiasm of our rapid mechanical conquests, we have overlooked some things. We have perhaps driven men into the service of the machine, instead of building machinery for the service of man." - Antoine de St. Exupéry.


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