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As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation and subsequently a senior fellow at Columbia, Alec Ross has logged “well over a million miles” in his travels across 41 countries.
He’s studied the development of emerging technologies and their applications around the world, and his book “The Industries of the Future” is an exploration of the six fundamental forces he is confident will transform the way we live and work over the next 20 years.
Business Insider recently spoke with Ross to hear more about these forces, and what we should expect.
We’ll become increasingly reliant on robots
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Advances in cloud computing is one of the main factors behind the dramatic rise of automated technology that will only continue to expand.
For example, in the United States, companies like Google and General Motors are investing in driverless car technology; in Japan, robots are serving as personal caregivers to the elderly.
As has happened before in history, automation will both kill and create jobs.
“Overall, robots can be a boon, freeing 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,” Ross writes.
Ross predicts that this will be a net positive for the entire global population, but will hurt the most among manual laborers in the Western world and low-skilled workers in countries like China.
Genomics will become the next trillion-dollar industry
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“The size of the genomics market was estimated at a little more than $11 billion in 2013 and is going to grow faster than anyone could imagine,” Ross writes.
Ronald W. Davis, director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center, “likens the state of genomics today to that of e-commerce in 1994, the year Amazon was founded and before the founders of Google had even begun working, as students, on internet search,” Ross continues.
He predicts that the American genomics industry will boom over the next two decades, and that we will be able to predict a tremendous amount about both our health and the health of our unborn children – which will bring with it some heavy ethical questions. China will be on the United States’ heels in this industry, he says.
The technology behind digital currency will eliminate middle men and empower developing nations
- Reuters/Stephen Lam
“I think the most significant outgrowth of Bitcoin has not been the creation of a viable digital currency, because I think that there is little evidence that Bitcoin is either a store of value or a medium of exchange,” Ross told Business Insider. “What’s significant is this computer science breakthrough in the blockchain,” the public ledger that tracks Bitcoin transactions.
For example, we will be less reliant on people like accountants to guide us through forms, since blockchain technology will be able to power “smart contracts” that can be embedded in the financial transactions for things like real estate.
Ross compared Bitcoin to an early web search tool like Web Crawler, and said that while it won’t become a widely used digital currency, it will serve as the foundation for ones that will.
“That is going to help accelerate globalization because a cryptocurrency will make it much easier to connect developing and developed markets,” he said. “The Bangladeshi construction worker in the United Arab Emirates is no longer going to have to spend 8% of their wages on transfer payments. They can spend .008% transferring the money to Bangladesh.”
The weaponization of code will force us to police the internet
The more individuals and companies place sensitive information online, the more cyber attacks become sophisticated, like the North Korean Sony hack of 2014.
“I think that in the future people are going to have to worry more about their digital safety than their physical safety,” Ross said. “People are going to be more likely to be hacked than to be mugged, and given a choice, I think many people would prefer to be mugged.”
“What’s interesting is that cyber defense is really oriented towards protecting big institutions as opposed to individuals. And what this means as a practical matter is the cops on the beat who protect us from mugging don’t really exist in the digital space.” He expects that to make up for this gap in protection, governments will begin offering a guarantee of a minimum level of cybersecurity.
We will continue to swap human judgment for the results of an algorithm
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Ross predicts that the term “big data” will fall out of fashion as we continue to become used to the idea of having algorithms sort data and reach conclusions.
These algorithms will increasingly make investments for banks in the developed world and help farmers conserve resources in the developing world without much scandal, but they may also enforce unconscious biases when used to hire employees at companies. We will need to stop blindly accepting algorithms.
“Most people think that algorithms are built by divine beings – they aren’t,” Ross said. “They’re built by human beings and as such they reflect the fallibility of human beings.”
States and countries that promote individual liberties will be those that excel
Ross said that people are constantly asking him where the next Silicon Valley will be, and he said the answer is simpler than they expect.
“It’s my strongly held view that those states in society that are most open will be HQs for the industries of the future,” Ross said.
“And so when I say ‘open,’ I mean that upward economic and social mobility is not confined to elites, it means that cultural and religious norms are not set from on high, and it means that it is rights-respecting for all people, be they women, be they racial minorities, be they ethnic minorities, be they religious minorities.”