Publishing Year: 2016
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
The human race is on the cusp of a profound transformation. That’s the kind of feeling Alec Ross’ ‘The Industries of the Future’ leaves you with. And, there is no puffery about it. We are staring into a future that may not look anything like we thought it would.
Alec Ross served as Senior Advisor for Innovation to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. You can say that he had a ringside seat to the technological developments in the recent years. He writes as if he had been there.
With the Internet, the world witnessed a shift which was radical yet linear. There were a few hiccups along the way, but the Internet did not cause any cataclysm.
The next wave of transformation, Alec fears, will wring in extreme changes. The exponential speed with which the computing power is hurtling along, many industries are going to be turned on their heads.
The transition will be a wrenching one and not easy. People who are ahead will get further ahead as they will have the first go to leverage the unified systems. On the other side, those who fail to adapt and improve will fall by the wayside and be replaced.
‘The Industries of the Future’ focuses attention on five fields which will drive the next 20 years of change to our economies and societies: a) Robotics/AI, b) Genomics, c) Cryptocurrency, d) Codification of Money and f) Big data.
a) Robots are coming and humans are bringing them
Robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are to this age what fire was to the prehistoric cavemen: a breakthrough of epic proportions.
Alec Ross seems convinced and I am in full agreement that the new advances in these fields will upend our world in ways more than one. Countries such as Japan, South Korea, the US, China and Germany are making huge leaps in robotics. However, each appears to be driven by a different catalyst.
Japan faced with an impending ageing population is pressing therapy-robots into service to take care of its elderly. The US and Germany, on the other hand, are gearing themselves up for industrial automatons.
“Robots come with a diametrically opposed cost structure: their upfront capital costs are high, but their operating costs are minor – robots don’t get a salary.” – Alec Ross
On a grim note, there is a definite threat to jobs in some sectors. Tasks that are repetitive, and require less cognitive application will get replaced first. From the employer’s perspective, there is good news. Unlike humans, you don’t have to make monthly investments in machines. You don’t have to pay them salaries; robots won’t ask for appraisals and bonuses either.
Intellectual thinktanks are still divided over singularity – a theoretical scenario where robots will surpass humans in intelligence and become self-aware.
The dystopian school of thought believes that AI-powered robots are going to subdue humans, thus invoking a Skynet-like threat. The utopians say that machines no matter how advanced they become will remain subservient to humans. Whatever be the case, the 2020s will prove pivotal to how the future is going to pan out.
b) Unlocking the Genomics
Just as machine learning, the field of genomics is in full acceleration mode. The first human genome was mapped in 2003, and the whole process cost $2.7 billion. Such has been the rate of progress that the cost fell to $10 million in 2008 and nowadays it costs only $1000 to sequence a genome. Let that sink in.
Ross expects that regular genetic testings, owing to low costs, will allow for early detection of deadly diseases like cancer.
If that is not sci-fi enough for you, then sample this. A few years down the line, ‘nanobots’, the autonomous machines built on nanoscale would treat diseases at the cellular level.
Bringing extinct species back to life and designing tailormade babies might sound outlandish to many, but Ross declares that such events are likely to become a possibility. This is exactly where humans cross over into the ominous zone of playing God. Like AI and singularity, this could go either way as well.
c) The Code-ification of Everything
Ross details the rise of sharing economy and cryptocurrency – the two economic systems with the potential of reshaping lives. He seems particularly optimistic about the future trajectory of the sharing economy blue-eyed boys: Uber and Airbnb. Both have only hit the tip of the iceberg.
Ross predicts that sooner than later, the entire workforces could be built out of peer-to-peer marketplaces. Fiverr, the Israel-based startup is a case in point.
“The sharing economy has turned what might have once been a casual favor into a financial transaction.” – Alec Ross
The evolution of cryptocurrency will reshape our lives further. Ross conjectures that the algorithm- and encryption-driven cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin will unleash the forces of globalization.
However, for the Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency to thrive, the banks and other mainstream institutions have to feel comfortable about it. On that front, Ross suggests, “The one thing that would address nearly all the problems swirling around Bitcoin is doing away with its near-religious insistence on secrecy.”
d) Unleashing hell in Code Wars
Cybersecurity market is booming. A report forecasts that the global cybersecurity market could hit $180 billion by 2021. The IoT will connect more and more devices and applications to the internet, making them vulnerable to Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs).
Don’t be shocked if you come to know your fridge has been surveilling on you and passing on your information (what time you wake up, what groceries you buy) to a big-box retail chain.
“The Weaponization of Code is the most significant development in warfare since the weaponization of the fissile material and has created a domain of conflict with no widely held norms or rules.” – Alec Ross
Ross appears particularly critical of China. He labels the world’s 2nd largest economy as the key conductor of the cyberespionage. He mentions, “When it comes to the mass theft of intellectual property, China has no peer.”
The minimal barriers to entry for cyberwarfare add to the growing concern. Today a disgruntled employee could launch an attack on his employer or a rogue group can unleash a botnet attack on a billion-dollar corporation. Until the world arrives on a consensus, Ross asserts, “The cyber domain will remain the Wild West.”
e) Big Data
There was a time, not more than 15 years ago when people used to talk about a 40 Gigabyte hard-disk as if it was the gold standard. No way could anyone have imagined the unending data barrage that we see today. For context, in the year 2015, our world produced 5.6 Zettabytes of data. For the uninitiated, 1 Zettabyte is 10²¹ bytes.
Moore’s law would hit its limits, said my professor a decade ago. But, the truth is there is no stopping Moore’s law.
Big data will enable processing of multitudes of complex variables into actionable information. New industry verticals such as fintech, precision agriculture and genomics are leveraging the power of big data already.
“In tomorrow’s workplace, either the human is telling the robot what to do or the robot is telling the human what to do.”-Alec Ross
There is no doubt that technologies of the future will impinge our world in many ways. AI will drive many people out of labor market; professions such as radiologists, patent attorneys, language translators, etc. could vanish into the thin air. But on the bright side, the same technologies could play a massive role in fixing the world’s most complex problems.
The optimist in me wants to trust human-robot collaboration scenarios. But then, just as quickly, the thought of machines outsmarting us evaporates my enthusiasm altogether.
In conclusion, ‘The Industries of the Future’ is a great read. It gives the reader an ample glimpse into the industries which would shape the future. The engaging and flowing narrative never lets the interest drop for a moment.
What I did not like, however, is the author walking the middle path. Throughout, Ross refrains from taking sides as he presents both the benign and malevolent facets of technology. That said, the author’s essence is candid. I look forward to reading more of him in the near future.