Opinion

The future world

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 01, 2016

ALEC ROSS Innovation expert

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As innovations disrupt everything around us fast and furious, we cannot passively stand witness, says author Alec Ross



Former senior advisor for innovation to Hillary Clinton, Alec Ross has criss-crossed over 40 countries, from Congo to Syria, meeting business leaders, politicians and diplomats discussing innovations that transform industries and life. A distinguished visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Ross responded to BusinessLine’s queries on his new book, The Industries of the Future. Excerpts:

What really is innovation? Does it need a purpose, a social goal?

I define innovation as the creation of novel products or processes that allow for the continuous realisation of the future. As to those who might complain that most innovative ideas today do not contribute much to the collective well-being of society especially in geographies like India or Africa… who are these people? In the 30 years from 1982 to 2012, India’s poverty rate dropped from 60 per cent of the population to 22 per cent. Life expectancy surged from 49 years to 66. Africa’s economy is positioned to achieve the largest average gains in GDP over the next decade, largely as a by-product of globalisation and innovation. So with all due respect to the people complaining about innovation in the generic, they don’t know what they’re talking about or they don’t understand mathematics.

Disruptive forces have been changing work for years, so what’s new on that front?

Sure, disruptive forces have been changing the way we work for years now, but those trends are now about to accelerate faster still, and reach into parts of our work and lives. Take genomics, for example. I think that the commercialisation of genomics is going to add three to five years to the average lifespan in wealthy, western countries. That possibility is just now becoming commercialised.

In the book you talk about robotics revolutionising work. But this can impact workers. How do we convince, say, trade unions?

I think that robotics and automation are going to continue apace whether trade unions are “convinced” of it or not. The next wave of automation technologies will present remarkably difficult challenges to workforces. A failure to adapt to fields and skill bases where there is projected job growth to come will make upward economic mobility more difficult. This is a bad thing. I’m not cheering these kinds of developments, I’m simply putting the facts out there.

In terms of how we deal with it, well, I write probably 50 pages about how we deal with it in my book. I would start by making sure that today’s youth get education supplements to account for what they’re not getting in school. For example, my 13-year-old son is taking a course in Mandarin online and my 11- year-old daughter has taken a course in robotics. Parents cannot passively stand witness to the changes taking place in the world and hope the schools get their kids ready.

You also write about cyber security in the book. Is anything really secure in cyberspace?

The weaponisation of code is the most significant development in warfare since the development of nuclear weapons, and its rapid rise has created a domain of conflict with no widely accepted norms or rules. Some nations are working to find a way of creating rules for the global community to abide by, but there are vast distances between stakeholder groups and therefore little hope of even a modest agreement of any sort.

The analogy that most foreign policy hands point to as a possible precedent for containing cyber weapons is nuclear non-proliferation: the creation of arms control agreements, treaties, UN resolutions, and international monitoring programmes to govern the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Under this international framework, nuclear war is still a threat, but nuclear weapons are well understood and there are processes in place to manage them.

In the 20th century, similar sets of procedures and rules were also developed for the weaponisation of airplanes, space, and chemical and biological weapons.

But the confounding factor when it comes to cyber war is that the barriers to entry are so much lower than in any of other domains. Any country, or even any rogue group or individual, that puts a little bit of time and effort into it can develop some nasty offensive cyber capabilities. It is, in fact, the near-opposite of the development of nuclear arms, which requires years of work, billions of dollars, and access to the scarcest of scarce scientific talent and trans-uranium elements.

I am more optimistic than pessimistic, but when it comes to cyber security, I have a fairly dark view of the future.

Among all the innovations that are going to transform our life in the near future, what’s your most favourite, and why?

The commercialisation of genomics and the development of precision medicines. If my three children are able to get medicines that will make them healthier and keep them alive longer, then as a father there is nothing more I could want in the world.

But there are concerns over the commercialisation of genomics or advanced life sciences.

Scientific development should not be independent of our values. There are things we can accept as being virtuous, such as genomics for treating diseases like Parkinson’s. But do we allow for the creation of “designer babies” using gene-editing technology for cosmetic purposes? Every society will have to ask and answer that question.

You talk about the concept of “near-radical openness,” giving the example of Estonia. Can you explain this a bit more for our Indian readers?

The principle political and economic binary of the 20th century was left versus right. In the 21st century, it’s open versus closed. I define open as having three principle attributes.First, upward economic and social mobility not constrained to elites. Second, cultural and religious norms not set by a central authority and, third, rights-respective for people from across society including women and religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.

How is digital technology going to change money and markets?

Digital technology is going to take an enormous amount of friction out of the payment process and bring markets together more closely. Think of those horrible fees paid by workers working abroad and sending money home. I think those fees will be a fraction of what they are today because of the next stage of innovation in digital payments.

When it comes to Big Data, the first rule of central banks and policymakers should be: “don’t be a solution in search of a problem”. There are very reasonable regulations to such technologies, but regulators should not be overzealous.

We’re in a world that’s more connected than ever. Does this affect social relations? I’m referring to concerns that the likes of Sherry Turkle discuss.

I think that it is impossible to describe the influence of connectivity on social relations without nuance. I think it almost certainly helps bring people together, but it tends to do so among people of like mind. It enables community-development, but those communities tend to be increasingly homogeneous. This, then, creates some terrible byproducts, particularly in politics.

Conversely, is technology making us more human or are we becoming humanoids with a difference?

I honestly don’t know. I think it probably makes us a little more machine-like.

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Published on May 01, 2016
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