Alec Ross on the Industries of the Future

“The near future will see robot suits that allow paraplegics to walk, designer drugs that melt away certain forms of cancer, and computer code being used as both an intellectual currency and a weapon to destroy physical infrastructure halfway around the world.”


The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross (2016, Simon and Schuster)

When a wave of innovation sweeps the globe who loses and who wins? Who is empowered and who is displaced? How have mechanisation and digitisation affected populations across the world? What kind of developments await us tomorrow – in which spheres? What sort of threats would they bring? Few people may be better equipped to answer such questions than Alec Ross (@AlecJRoss), one of Foreign Policy’s top 100 Global Thinkers (2011) and currently Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1971, Ross graduated in History from Northwestern University (1994) and in 2000, co-founded the technology-focussed nonprofit One Economy, which grew from modest origins in a basement into a global organisation serving millions of low-income people on four continents. From 2009 to 2013, he was Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He now advises investors, start-ups and government leaders on the implication of “macro factors emerging at the intersection of geopolitics, markets and increasingly disruptive network technologies”.

Alec Ross’s recent book The Industries of the Future (2016) has grown out of his time at the U.S. Department of State, during which he was able to travel to dozens and dozens of countries – “logging more than half a million miles” – and had the chance of seeing many of the technologies that await us in the coming years. This included:

next-generation robotics in South Korea, banking tools being developed in parts of Africa where there were no banks, laser technology used to increased agricultural yields in New Zealand, and university students in Ukraine turning sign language into the spoken word.

In his informative and accessible book, Ross distills his observations into six compact chapters, each discussing one or more forces that will shape the world of tomorrow. The tone is neither inclined towards utopia nor dystopia but remains intelligently pragmatic throughout. The sections are as follows. I will mention important points from each.

  1. Here Comes the Robots – On “Robotics”
  2. The Future of the Human Machine – On “Genomics”
  3. The Code-ification of Money, Markets and Trust – On “Financial Technology” and “Digital Currencies”
  4. The Weaponisation of Code – On “The Internet of Things” and “Cybersecurity”
  5. Data: The Raw Material of the Information Age – On “Big Data”
  6. The Geography of Future Markets – On how the binary of “Open” v/s “Closed” systems (economic+political) will determine which cities and states and societies will succeed or fail

1). Enter the Robots – your new Caregivers and Job-takers

There has been a quantum leap in robotics – this is because robots have now become networked devices; they have been hooked to the “cloud,” which simply means that each robot has access to the experiences of every other robot of their kind and can act upon that huge store of information. Robots will be useful in a number of arenas – healthcare, education, hospitality, transportation, logistics. Where possible, several employers will prefer machines over humans because the former – although they come with high capital expenditure/capex (up-front payments) – do have low operational expenditure/opex (salaries, benefits).


In Japan, robots are being rapidly manufactured for the purpose of elder care. Despite its low birth rate, the country remains strict in its immigration policy. It does not accept foreign nurses. Interestingly, points out Ross, East Asian animistic beliefs have made the Japanese more receptive to robots. They do not see them as threatening or soulless machines but as members of the family. On the other hand, Western culture is full of cautionary tales that speak of humanity being unable to control the things it has created. Just consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). (Photo: A robot in Japan by User “Day Donaldson”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr)


Overall, robots can be a boon, says Ross – they will free up humans to do more productive things – “but only so long as humans create the systems to adapt their workforces, economies, and societies to the inevitable disruption”. The wealth generated from robotics should be reinvested in “the education and skills development of the displaced taxi drivers and waitresses.”


An old photograph showing the concentration of chemical manufacturers in the town of Nitro, 14 miles downriver of Charleston, West Virginia (where Alec Ross was born), Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]. The problem of mechanisation/automation and unemployment is old. The last wave of innovation made janitors of the workers at these factories in West Virginia. They were on “the wrong side of globalisation”. Their job positions had been transferred to low-cost labour markets like Mexico and India.


2). The Next Trillion-Dollar Industry will be Built on our own Genetic Code

Chemotherapy may just be history. “Liquid biopsy” – the examination of a blood sample for the presence of even the tiniest amounts of tumour DNA – is already a reality. Cancer will be discovered before any symptoms have developed. The cost of gene mapping will continue to drop and people will know if they are predisposed to risks fairly early to be able to order and consume specifically tailored “precision medicines.” But these wonderful developments will come with heavy ethical concerns. Example, designer babies. Parents may just alter the genetic makeup of fetuses a bit too much.

3). Coded Markets and Digital Currencies will Rewrite the Terms of Trust between Corporation, Citizen and Government

eBay and PayPal with their electronic payment facilities created the first wave of “coded markets” but now mobile payments will eliminate the need for ATMs, bank offices and debit/credit cards. Ross writes: “Coded markets will now reach into the world’s most isolated communities, and they will link emerging markets to the global economy even more closely.”

Despite their flaws, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (a global, de-centralised virtual medium of exchange introduced after the 2008 financial crisis because banks had loaned off the money deposited in them) will endure but they would have to do away with their near-religious insistence on secrecy. Ross also writes that the publicly distributed ledger of transactions of such de-centralised digital currencies (in the case of Bitcoin, the “blockchain”) would need to be governed by “some multistakeholder institutions” in “the same way that the internet is decentralised but has organisations running processes like domain registration.”


Bitcoin by User “BTC Keychain”, CC BY 2.0, Flickr


4). From Cold War to Code War

Funnily enough, cyberspace – which was supposed to survive nuclear attack – has, along with air, land and sea, been now declared a domain of warfare. Alec Ross opens this chapter with the true story of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest energy company (also, the most valuable company in the world, estimated to be between $2 to $10 trillion, certainly more than triple the market cap for Apple). On 15 August 2012, in an attack known as “Shamoon and Disttrack”, a group of hackers linked with the Iranian government tried to infiltrate and destroy the infrastructure of Saudi Aramco via a computer virus left by a rogue employee. The company’s networks remained shut for several days and several infected computers had to be replaced (read the August 2015 CNN article “The inside story of the biggest hack in history” for more information). Ross’s point is “if a cyberattack can could happen to the world’s largest company operating in a secure environment, it could happen anywhere and to anyone.”


Core area of Saudi Aramco in the city of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Wikipedia [Public Domain]


Also, with advances in cloud computing, the stage is now set for “the Internet of Things“, a situation in which “any object has the potential to transmit and receive data, from cars and farm equipment to watches and appliances, even clothing”. The digitisation of nearly everything will create an almost unimaginable new set of “vulnerabilities and openings for cybersecurity hacks“. Governments will have to work with the private sector to develop the best cyberdefences. Liberty and security would need to be balanced.


The Internet of Things (Pixabay)


5). Data: The Raw Material of the Digital Age

If land was the raw material of the agricultural age, iron was the raw material of the industrial age, then “data is the raw material of the information age”. Ross has said:

The 5 zettabytes of information—that’s ten to the 21st power of bytes—that we now create every year is a sort of Pacific Ocean of information from which we can draw meaning. If you think about it, it’s really remarkable. The earliest form of data, the earliest form of recorded human information, was a painting on a cave wall. If you take the sum of all of the information created from painting on cave wall to the year 2003, we now create that every two days. Every two days, we create the amount of information we created from earliest humankind to 2003.


The Information Age (Pixabay)


One way in which big data – the collection and processing of large amounts of information – will affect us in the near future is by helping us listen to and speak to speakers of other languages in real time. This will happen through earpieces (“bio acoustic engineering”). The language barrier will be eliminated. Translations will be almost accurate.

One disadvantage of big data is digital permanence. Since all facts and figures stored about us are indelible, we may have to fight for our privacy.

6). The Worst Time to be a Control Freak

If, in the 20th century, the dominant divide across governments and markets was along the axis of Left versus Right, in the 21st century, it will be along “open” and “closed” systems. States that restrict the flow of capital and do not promote individual liberties across all sections of their populations (especially among women) will be unable to function successfully in the climate of tomorrow. Also, a “schizophrenic” relationship to the outside world, a tendency to see other fields of trade as enemy territory will severely damage one’s prospects of progress. Big cities can only turn into incubators of growth and hubs of innovation in so far as they are able to attract and welcome people and goods and ideas from all corners of the globe.


People are the most critical resource of a business and country. Societies with regressive gender policies will be undervaluing a mighty half of their populations. Alec Ross writes: “There is no greater indicator of an innovative culture than the empowerment of women…Societies that do not overcome their negative cultural legacies regarding the treatment of women will founder in the next wave of innovation.” (Photo: A Women’s Rights Protest in Egypt by User “Al Jazeera English”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)


Finally, what makes The Industries of the Future unique and useful is the fact that it takes all projections and analyses to the domestic sphere. Ross, a father of three and an evangelist of life-long learning, maintains that “parenting is the most important job you will ever have.” How can we best prepare our children for tomorrow? They would need broad outlooks and multiple skills. Ross suggests rigorous language proficiency (“coding” and “foreign”) and a merging of the humanities and the sciences. The traditional distance between the liberal arts and engineering fields would need to collapse. It will not be enough to train “political scientists” or “computer scientists” – we would need hybrids. To this possibility of marriage between smart technical expertise and humane decision-making, I say, yes, please!

One area which I would have liked in such a book is that of “cryonics” (news story 1New York Timesnews story 2Guardian) – the preservation of dead human beings in the hope that they may be revived at a later date with advancement in medicine. I found all six forces discussed in the book fascinating – but, for now, cannot stop thinking of the first one. Widespread imminent automation will disturb families and communities everywhere; it will unleash anger and violence. The proposal of profit-reinvestment towards the retraining of redundant workers with obsolete competencies is a reasonable option but, I suppose, it will be challenging to execute. There is a strong moral element behind the whole economic-political issue of wealth redistribution. We need somebody to write an entire book on it.

Additional Resources:

Conversation between Alec Ross and Brad Stone (Senior Writer, Bloomberg Businessweek) at World Affairs Council in San Francisco.

Alec Ross in conversation with Jonathan Fields of the NY-based Good Life Project.

Featured Image: Edited from Pixabay


Preview The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross.

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