Who owns an idea? This question is one that increasingly matters as we enter the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) with its explosion of new information technology. We live in interesting times. Anyone over the age of thirty cannot help but marvel at the astonishing advances in computers and artificial intelligence (AI) since they were children.

But the history of human development when it comes to new technology is rarely smooth. Take the first industrial revolution back in the 18th century. The legacy of fossil fuel burning and pollution from the succeeding two centuries now threatens to destroy the delicate eco-systems upon which all life on earth relies – and we are still pumping poisonous carbon into the atmosphere at an increased rate.

I wonder if future generations will look back on the early years of the 21st century and ask why we did not take better control of 4IR.

A few examples in the news give a flavour, as well as raising a crucial question: who should profit from ground-breaking 4IR new technologies? Should it be for shareholders or the collective benefit of all mankind?

Last week a nonprofit research company, OpenAI, announced a revolutionary AI system called GPT2 that can write news stories and even works of fiction, so convincing they have taken the unusual step of not releasing their research. Instead, they wish to allow themselves more time to explore the potential misuse of this breakthrough technology. Examples include flooding social media with false posts or product reviews for political or commercial advantage.

Given what we have learned about how Cambridge Analytica exploited social media to influence elections all over the world – including Brexit – this matters deeply. The quality of our political debate is of central importance if citizens are to make informed, democratic choices.

Take another technological development with the capacity to alter human history. Autonomous weapons are being developed by all the major powers in the world. In effect, we are talking about replacing human soldiers with robots designed to kill any enemy their programming allows them to recognise. Killer robots without the capacity for morals were once the stuff of sci-fi but like it or not, they are here.

I would urge our government to call an emergency UN conference to produce a binding international treaty banning the further development of these evil – and I use the loaded word quite deliberately – weapons of war. The mere possibility of conscienceless killing devices unleashed on civilian populations is the stuff of dystopian nightmare.

So much for the negative impacts of 4IR – and there are potentially many more. What of the positives?

I am tremendously excited by emerging AI technology. For the first time in human history a truly planned economy is possible, so that the waste, chaos and inefficiency of ‘the market’ can be replaced with rational, eco-friendly planning to meet human needs. Medical technology, labour-saving devices that could make the leisure society more than a slogan that applies only to the wealthy, communication, education, knowledge-sharing, research – the list of potential benefits stretches ahead. But always we come back to the dilemma who will benefit.

Isn’t it time to stop allowing private monopolies to exist that should be viewed as public utilities? Amazon or other online retail giants spring to mind. Here are suppliers of goods and services too bloated for anyone’s good. Why not make online shopping a public service with all profits ploughed back to transform communities blighted by austerity? Likewise, why not nationalise Facebook?

Of special concern is medical research based on emerging technologies. Surely it is simply logical to remove the profit motive from vital health research and development. Let us never forget the discoverers of penicillin refused to take out a patent on antibiotics because they believed such transformative medicine belonged to all humanity.

Interesting times, true, but it is up to ordinary citizens to ensure we all benefit equally from 4IR, not just the usual suspects.