Jun 25, 2020 in Review

The Industries of the Future

Alec Ross became an internationally famous expert on innovation after publishing his first book The Industries of the Future. Released this year, this non-fiction piece is already the New York Times Bestseller that has been translated into 15 languages. This paper explores the central ideas of the book and analyses the premises, conclusions, and advises that author proposes to his readers.

Very often, people assume that trying to foresee the future is a vain thing and one spends time doing so if he or she is a fraudster or a truly naïve person. Indeed, we live in a complex world and in complicated times, and the overall system of causal relations is so multi-element that predicting of an upcoming event is challenging and often impossible. Obviously, the simpler the event is, the more accurate the prediction gets. On the other hand, predictor’s background knowledge and experience mean a lot, especially when it comes to suggesting an adequate hypothesis on the future of complex systems such as industries. In The Industries of the Future, the author juggles with the systems of the highest complexity (which are the industries of robotics, genome medicine, etc.), ignoring the fact that they do not yet exist, and the description of their nature might be slightly premature. It seems logical to suggest that Ross’ key assumption was that for some reason he could write a non-fiction book about the future of industries in the age of big data and forced globalization. The sales supported this assumption, the readers’ community did not. First of all, I strongly disagree with the idea of solo expert forecasting of the diverse and still nonexistent systems of enormous complexity. However, it is hard to deny that one can create a useful model of the possible (even probable) future to be analyzed and tested. In addition, The Industries of the Future conveys few social messages a reasonable reader would strongly agree with. With that in mind, we are now in a better position to trace the main argument of the book.  

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By providing an expressive retrospective story about globalization and its consequences that the world has already faced, Alec Ross creates a special sort of involvement on a part of a reader. The narrator presents himself as the one who has seen the world and knows the dark side of globalization, works with important people in important places, and, what is even more, is a self-made expert with an intention to show the opportunities and threats of a disturbing future to an appreciative audience. The main messages of the book are familiar to almost everyone who has not read it: data is today’s raw material, robots are coming, the labor market is going to collapse, and cancer will be cured. Still, a significant amount of supportive stories creates a feeling that “everything is there” in this well-researched book. The big advice to survive is even simpler: be an adaptive life-long learner and raise your children technology-literate. 

The Ross’ work seems to be relevant for now, mostly due to recent publication date. What is even more interesting, it is also comforting for a lot of readers who were puzzled by uncertainty and now have received a sound prediction to which adjust their expectations. Being mostly a mile wide and an inch deep, the text mentions dozens of examples from different areas of history, technology, politics, and economy, thus creating an impression of constructing a whole out of parts. However, the construction never gets beyond insights presented in an introduction and the epigraph from Wells’ A Short History of the World. 

Despite the motley but poor key message, the illustrative information and the civil position of the author deserve attentive tracing. To begin with, a reader finds a set of topics that look suspiciously sexy: money, robots, advancing life by means of genetics, weaponized code, and global digital warfare. It is far more likely that the author chose them for the sake of expected sales than that he is an expert in all of that. However, the information is closely associated with the recent globally important events and tendencies, like Asian shift in global geopolitics, introducing the algorithms of deep machine learning, and hybrid warfare in Syria and Ukraine. Though some information in the book is partially decorative (for example, the robot that plays the violin; there is no such a thing as a poetry-based economy that was built by creative snowflakes and now is endangered by robotic expansion into the market), one may find a bunch of attention-grabbing and recent facts.  

While Ross remained in the position of Hillary Clinton’s adviser, he had many opportunities to observe such things as the development of the robotics in South Korea, the development of financial services in Africa where banking infrastructure is not developed, and other processes. According to Alex Ross, the codification of money will move along with new industrial development. Money has always been a physical thing, even the names of world currencies mean something tangible (Mexican peso, Israeli shekel, and British Pound all derive from words meaning weight). Ross tries to explore how the codification will change commerce and how people around the world will receive, spend, and transfer money. He admits that everyday payments using devices such as smartphones have great potential for growth. Of course, digital currency cannot replace all of the old ones. However, cryptocurrency has a great advantage of cheap transfers. That is a point that Thomas L. Friedman under-emphasized in his The World is Flat: the world gets smaller not only because technology makes it faster, but also because a lot of things are becoming cheaper as well. 

In The Industries of the Future, Ross writes about the rise of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Although Wall Street was hostile to bitcoin at first, Goldman Sachs and many other investment companies invested $50 million in Bitcoin startups because they liked the easy and affordable way of money transfers across the globe. In the end, according to Ross, the cryptocurrency will become the mainstream.

Another good point Ross makes clear is that innovation requires the combination of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM disciplines) with the Humanities. For instance, Zuckerberg, who started Facebook in a dorm room at Harvard, studied computer science and psychology at College of the Ivy League. Ross believes that the understanding of the human psyche helped the new social network to grow into something bigger, as it affected the interface and principles of operation of the network. Schmidt, the former head of Google who currently holds the post of President of the parent company Alphabet, has a Ph.D. in computer science. Nevertheless, the knowledge of the principles of international relations helped Schmidt to bring Google on a global level, says Ross. The author believes it is unforgivable to give little attention to these things. He fairly argues that combined skills and knowledge from different sciences will be increasingly important in the future. 

As the development of artificial intelligence, robotics, cyber security and genomics proceeds, people with wide knowledge in various fields will have a better understanding of how to implement these technologies in the real world. Due to globalization, innovations will appear not only in the developed countries.

The knowledge of a variety of additional subjects will also give young people an advantage in the global labor market. Ross believes that in ten years, production and office positions in higher-yielding markets will be given to robots and artificial intelligence systems as well. However, the professions that require emotional intelligence will remain for people. 

Finally, his powerful social message that women empowering is of the central importance is somehow controversial in its revealing how little the author understands the nature of a gender. His phrase “we need to empower women” was met with a strong ovation in Baltimore TEDx event, but immediately after that, he explained the role of women in the successful Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland by saying that “women are natural peacemakers”. Ross just seems to miss the point here. It is not that men are born to be conquerors and warriors, and women are born to be peacemakers and caregivers, and this is why we need them both in all of the spheres of human activity. The problem is that often boys and girls might be raised this way; it is a part of childhood background, not of our DNA. Of course, we need to empower women, but for a totally different reason. It is simply a stupid idea to limit the access to competition with criteria that has nothing to do with the competition, it is like “we do not need blue-eyed miners”. One simply risks missing very good professionals with such a rules. 

To conclude, The Industries of the Future conveys important social messages along with the author’s insights about the upcoming tendencies in various spheres and interesting stories from his travels. However, the insights and pieces of advice are close to obvious and the reasoning is often questionable. Despite the commercial success of the book and its rich factual material, the very premise of the possibility to forecast the future of such complex systems implies that a reader gets an opinion, not an answer, and this opinion is often fragmented, poorly reasoned, and quite obvious.

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