16 AUGUST 2023

In the last few months, I have noticed a shift in the topics of my conversations with businesspeople about technological changes. I am no longer asked about what I think about the “fourth industrial revolution”, “digitalisation” or “industry 4.0 strategies”. Instead, I am asked about solar installations for companies, whether I know companies that have installed solar-backed power solutions, or whether I know where entrepreneurs could go to see a manufacturer that has gone “off-grid”. The only exception to this rule is when I bring up the topic of ChatGPT/Generative Artificial Intelligence or Large Language Models (LLMs). Then people would say, “Yes, we tried that”, and the conversation would quickly go back to the effects of loadshedding on working hours, the manufacturing process, supply chain logistics and operating costs.

I cannot help but wonder how much funds meant for capital expansion and investments have been diverted to secure energy or keep a business operating. Of course, there are real benefits for society when companies switch to solar energy. It reduces the load on the power grid and means that companies must replace inefficient (and often older) technology with more efficient solutions. I am just afraid that many companies took the knee-jerk to opt for diesel generators to keep their operations going. Even worse, that many companies could not afford to make any alternative arrangements and therefore lose money when the electricity is off.

I decided to look at how search terms on Google (South Africa) have changed. I entered the following four search terms into Google Trends[i]:
“Fourth Industrial Revolution”, “4IR”, “Solar”, “Generator”

Obs search trends Legend 1 17082023

Obs search trends Figure 1 17082023

In Figure 1, it shows that the Fourth Industrial Revolution/4IR search string peaked in 2018-2019 when the Presidential 4IR Commission was most active. Since 2020 these search terms have been slowly drifting downwards to reach a low-interest level in South Africa in 2023. In contrast, the interest in solar solutions and power generators has increased in the past year. Yet, in comparison, more searches for “solar” or “generators” have been recorded over the last five years. You must zoom in to see the spike in the 4IR search results.

When I added “ChatGPT”, it almost caught up with interest in the search term for “solar” in the South African Google search results shown in Figure 2 below.

Obs search trends Legend 2 17082023

Obs search trends Figure 1 17082023

The interest in “ChatGPT” rapidly increased when OpenAI announced ChatGPT3 in November 2022 but has only recently passed “solar” in the trend graphs. For the last few months, interest in ChatGPT, LLMs and Artificial Intelligence has remained very high.

To illustrate how high the interest in solar and ChatGPT-related search queries are, I unbundled some of the technologies typically included under “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” like “robotics”, “Internet of Things”, “IoT” and “3D printing”. First, these individual technologies all have a much higher interest in the South African google trends than 4IR or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The result of this unbundling are shown in Figure 3 below.

Obs search trends Legend 3 17082023

Obs search trends Figure 3 17082023

However, when comparing the search interest of these technologies to solar and ChatGPT, they all fade away as shown in Figure 4 below. The Blue line represents the interest in the search term ChatGPT.

Obs search trends Legend 4 17082023

Obs search trends Figure 4 17082023

The interest in ChatGPT clearly exceeds the interest in some of the technologies that were previously dominating the discussion about technological change and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Narrowing the search to the interest in ChatGPT and Solar solutions over the past 12 months, the interest in solar solutions and ChatGPT still stands out as being of high interest (Figure 5). When I add the other major technologies, they simply crawl along the bottom of the graph.

Obs search trends Legend 5 17082023

Obs search trends Figure 5 17082023

It is not possible to tell whether these are business or personal interests, but Google Trends seems to confirm that interest in the broader Fourth Industrial Revolution is down, while interest in solar energy and ChatGPT or other Large Language Models is very high. In fact, the search interest in ChatGPT overshadows all other technology interests, with solar in a close second place.