As a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, Alec Ross travelled the world with the remit of cataloguing the best examples of innovation the human race has to offer. His trips took him to Korea, the Congo and Silicon Valley (and far enough overall he has calculated, to take him from the Earth to the moon twice, with a side trip from the US to New Zealand), and left him with a concern that the rate of change could leave many behind.
From robots entering the workforce and leading to the very real prospect of redundancy within a decade for the million employees of Taiwan’s electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn to genetic engineering unleashing the possibility of designer babies, the power of technology to reshape the world is reaching historic levels.
But the people who have the most to lose from those changes are often the ones who get the least warning. That, says Ross, was his motivation for writing The Industries of the Future, which looks at six of the biggest waves of change about to hit the world. Ross aims to help readers to “learn a lot about topics that they usually find boring or too technical – and they’ll then be able to make some better informed decisions about their future”.
The book manages that feat of accessibility. Ross breezes through various fields, from cybersecurity to financial technology via big data, robotics and genomics –highlighting the potential for disruption they all bring. In contrast to other authors who focus on one or the other of those topics, he often takes a more measured, “idealist-realist” approach towards the effects they’ll have.
He says that life sciences research, for instance, will “add a couple of years of life expectancy, in the societies where the commercialisation of genomics mainstreams”. That would provide a huge increase in human welfare, but it be a letdown to a reader hoping to beat death.
“I’m not cyber-utopian or cyber-sceptic,” he says. “I’m an idealistic realist.”
That plays out in other areas too: not for him is Martin Ford’s argument, in Rise of the Robots, that AI will hollow out the middle classes and crash the global economy; nor does he buy the claims of cryptocurrency advocates that bitcoin will free the global financial system from the tyranny of central banks, though he does think the technology could prove seriously useful to the first conventional bank to adopt it fully.
Given his background – Ross was the convenor for the technology, media and telecommunications policy committee for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign – it’s surprising that one area he leaves comparatively untouched is conventional politics, though he does advocate the need for a strong social safety net in an era of technologically driven job destruction.
He says his motivation for writing the book is “to help people prepare for their economic futures” –and the skills they will need are divorced from politics.
The Industries of the Future: How the Next 10 Years of Innovation Will Transform Our Lives at Work and Home, by Alec Ross, is published in hardback on 25 February, £20
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