When it comes to technology and innovation we all seem to be fascinated by trying to predict the future. But in reality, forecasting what the field will look like in even five years is a difficult task. Nobody was able to accurately predict the rise of the internet or the scale of its effect on our culture.
Alec Ross is a technology policy expert and former advisor for innovation to Hillary Clinton during her term as Secretary of State. His ambitious new book The Industries of the Future explores what he believes will be the future of innovation, from robotics and artificial intelligence to genomics and the influence of big data in the way we run our societies.
These last two issues in particular are areas that Ross boldly claims will “follow the internet as the world’s next trillion dollar industries.” He makes the case that this is in fact already happening, citing precision agriculture as just one way in which big data is transforming industries. Farmers are now able to use a new wealth of information at their fingertips, informing them of weather patterns, soil temperature and humidity, growth, and dozens of other factors that mean they can increase the proficiency of their work. Meanwhile huge advances are also being made in life sciences and diagnostics with the introduction of innovative medical techniques such as liquid biopsies.
However, despite all of this innovation, 4.4 billion people in the world still don’t have access to the internet. It’s an uncomfortable fact that the rapid advancement of technology often highlights and deepens the disparity between the West and developing countries. Ross admits that “the commercialization of genomics will overwhelmingly benefit the western and wealthy first, before reaching middle and lower income people.”
Another highly debated issue when it comes to technology is inevitably the issue of increased unemployment, as human labour around the world is rapidly replaced by a machine workforce. Expert Moshe Vardi has predicted that half of the world’s population will be out of jobs in the coming 30 years. But Ross disagrees and is in fact dismissive of the suggestion. Is this attitude overly hopeful? “No,” he assures us, “I’m optimistic but not utopian.”
It would be hard for someone like Alec Ross to be utopian, watching the current political drama that he is so emotionally invested in unfold. He is a fervent Hilary Clinton supporter. Speaking of his involvement in the creation of her ground-breaking ‘open internet’ agenda, Ross says “It was an incredible responsibility and privilege. It was enormously successful extending human rights work into the Internet and is something I’m very proud of.” He avoids speaking specifically about the impending election but he tells us that his work with Clinton taught him “first and foremost that she would be a very good president.”
In The Industries Of The Future, Ross offers the reader a vision of disruption-led progress, introducing us to game-changing technologies and suggesting ways in which we will adapt with them and improve ourselves. He acknowledges that true innovative disruption is hard to foresee but reasons that although, “Some predictions will be wrong, and some I will miss entirely, some of them – I think most of them – will be right.”