Long before Alec Ross logged half a million miles visiting 41 countries as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation, he found himself in a concert hall in Charleston, West Virginia, swabbing up puke after a country music concert.
Ross was 19 and had just finished his freshman year of college at Northwestern University. While some of his classmates were working fancy internships at law firms and congressional offices, he pushed a mop on the midnight shift as a member of the Charleston Civic Center’s janitorial crew.
The summer job would provide a memorable view from the wrong side of the new economy, working alongside guys who, a generation ago, might have found employment in a coal mine (but those jobs had been replaced by machines) or in a chemical factory (which had long ago relocated to Mexico or India, where there were fewer environmental regulations and less expensive labor).
“All this change will pale in comparison to what is going to come in the next wave of innovation as it hits all 196 countries on the planet,” Ross writes in his new book, “Industries of the Future.” “The coming era of globalization will unleash a wave of technological, economic and sociological change as consequential as the changes that shook my hometown in the 20th century and the changes brought on by the Internet and digitization as I was leaving college 20 years ago.”
We spoke with Ross about the change he sees coming — observations drawn in part from his tenure with Clinton, which afforded him the opportunity to observe next-generation robotics in South Korea, banking tools in parts of Africa where there were no banks and laser technology used to increase agricultural yields in New Zealand. Even the janitorial work Ross once performed might be performed by robots (which wouldn’t recoil from such odious work).
So what’s on the horizon?
Here Come the Robots
Ross predicts robots will increasingly occupy the world alongside us, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. He cites the example of automakers Toyota and Honda leveraging their expertise in mechanical engineering to create a new type of robot that will function as caregivers in the home and beyond. Toyota’s nursing aide Robina, modeled after Rosie the cartoon robot housekeeper in “The Jetsons,” is part of a line of robots designed to care for the world’s aging population.
“The robots from the cartoons and movies of the 1970s are going to be the reality of the 2020,” Ross said.
Robots initially will perform jobs that are dangerous, dirty and “dreary” and require little human interaction. But over time, robots will tiptoe into the service sector. Two developments make this possible: robots will connect to the cloud (giving the machines enhanced smarts) and benefit from advances in modeling “belief space” — a term that refers to how math can be used to predict outcomes.
What this means is blue collar workers in automotive factories won’t be the only ones whose jobs are threatened.
“The next wave of jobs significantly at risk are low-level white collar jobs,” Ross said — people like his father, a real estate lawyer in Hurricane, West Virginia, who did house closings for 45 years. “The $1200-an-hour lawyer at Wilson Sonsini is not in danger of being displaced, but the $300-an-hour lawyer who’s doing rote work real estate closings is.”
The Codification of Money
Money has always been a physical thing — even the names of the world’s currencies connote something tangible (the Mexican peso, the Israeli shekel and the British pound all derive from words meaning weight). But Ross explores how code will transform commerce and how people around the world will receive, spend and transfer money. He acknowledges Square Chief Executive Jack Dorsey for recognizing the potential to make everyday payments using a device that is growing even more precious than our wallets: our mobile phones.
“The dollar, euro, yen and yuan — I don’t think digital currency will displace any of those,” Ross said. “But payments, which have such a ridiculous amount of friction … these should become a penny per transaction.”
Ross writes about Bitcoin and the rise of cryptocurrency. While initially hostile to the concept, Wall Street is warming to the technology. Goldman Sachs and Chinese investment firm IDG invested $50 million in a Bitcoin company because they liked how the technology made it easy to move money around the globe. He predicts cryptocurrency will eventually become mainstream.
The Weaponization of Code
The world has left the Cold War behind, only to enter into a Code War, writes Ross.
Terms for the weaponization of code are well known: malware, virus, Trojan horse and denial-of-service attack. But the world is just beginning to grasp the implications. Ross notes that the cost of cyberattacks now exceeds $400 billion a year — a number that’s larger than the gross domestic product of about 160 countries around the world.
Ross describes the weaponization of code as “the most significant development in warfare” since the weaponization of fissile material. He said creating a nuclear weapon requires scarce talent and resources. Not so for hackers, whose attacks against public companies such as retail giant Target and Sony Pictures offer vivid illustrations of the damage that can be inflicted.
“I’m a pretty optimistic person. This is the part of the book where I took the darkest view,” Ross said. “I spent too much time in the White House situation room, learning about the disasters averted.”
Throughout the book Ross examines the topic of competitiveness — what it takes for societies, families, and individuals to thrive.
“There is no greater indicator of an innovative culture than the empowerment of women,” Ross writes. “Fully integrating and empowering women economically and politically is the most important step that a country or company can take to strengthen its competitiveness. Societies that do not overcome their negative cultural legacies regarding the treatment of women will founder in the next wave of innovation.”