By Som Mittal April 16, 2016
The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross is a timely book that analyses significant emerging technology disruptions and their effect on lives of common citizens, creation of new business opportunities, and the challenges these pose for societies and governments.
Ross has worked as the Senior Advisor for Innovation for the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and earlier with President Obama. This role and subsequent assignments with governments and businesses across the world gave Ross great exposure, insights of emergence and adoption of these technologies, and also an opportunity to assimilate the views of world leaders and thinkers he interacted with.
He has specifically focused on emerging areas such as robotics, application of genomics, cyber security and cyber warfare, crypto currencies, big data and analytics. While these innovations and their applications are very complex and often difficult to comprehend, Ross has demystified and explained them in a storytelling style, which makes it easy to appreciate for an average reader.
While we have had several eras and waves of industrial revolution, the current digital revolution is different in its impact and potential. The unparalleled speed of adoption, rapid evolution and the potential of disrupting the conventional are what make it different. The book brings out very well that these new digital technologies are democratised, more inclusive, impact the lives of common citizens and societies across the world, and are not limited to business and the developed world. Most of these technologies, while complex, are still intuitive, not in-the-face, embedded in devices and applications, and do not need special skills for the end user.
The book has several real examples and illustrations for each of the new technologies, and how they will change lives, create completely new businesses, provide scalable solutions for major impediments that exist in developing and poor countries, covering almost all aspects of life, health, agriculture, services and governance. It also lists interesting examples of how technology will remove language barriers through effective real-time language translation tools and help link people and societies. These will open up new opportunities for entrepreneurship, as is evident from the large number of highly-valued start-ups in Silicon Valley, Israel, China, India and other countries.
Ross has brought out the potential negative impacts and unintended consequences of each of these technologies and the pressures they will create on societies and governments, as also the changes in mindsets that will be required to embrace these. He has highlighted the new skills and capabilities that senior executives and boards will need, as these technologies disrupt current business models and create new competitors like the new fintech companies.
At times, Ross does sound rather alarmist about the unintended consequences and risks. While they are real, the past has shown that societies have managed and mitigated similar risks and downsides quite well. The real risk we actually run is that each country and region, instead of addressing the challenges, may impose geographical restrictions and indirect censorship on data flows, severely limiting the positive impact of these technologies and denying their benefits. The recent expose of cyber espionage and surveillance by the US has raised several new questions on the role of nations.
While robotics and other innovations may create job losses, they also create newer ones. There will be pressure on societies and employees to continually pick up new skills to be relevant. While dealing with robotics, he has a bias towards physical robots, whereas the bigger impact is likely to be artificial intelligence.It is difficult for any author to be comprehensive on such a vast range of technologies. Ross has mentioned but not dealt with the significant conflict of protecting individual privacy vs the governments' responsibility of national security. He is a bit biased towards the opportunities for US corporations, whereas today's globalised world would see rapid emergence of technology firms in developing countries which would leapfrog with these technologies and drive faster adoption, not having any past baggage.
While the book has taken a ten-year horizon, the likelihood of a more accelerated impact is very real. One of the unique features of this book is almost 40 pages of notes and references compiled by Ross for readers to explore a particular area a bit more.
The book is a must-read to better understand and prepare ourselves on what the future holds for us, how we need to incentivise entrepreneurship, initiate educational reforms and bring in gender diversity for the next generation to leverage the immense benefits fully. Very clearly, the positive disruptions caused far outweigh any downside, which can be mitigated.
The writer is former President of NASSCOM