Alec Ross served for four years as the Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and is one of America's leading experts on how the world works and on how it will look in the years to come. His debut book, The Industries of the Future, will be released in February 2016 and in it he tackles the implications of global trends that will affect life in the next decade. Currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Stay Thirsty Magazine invited him to look into his crystal ball and participate in our One Hundred Words project from his home in Baltimore by writing his responses to topics we suggested.
STAY THIRSTY: Robots.
ALEC ROSS: The robots of the cartoons and movies from the 1970s will be the reality of the 2020s. Robots are now transitioning from doing work that is manual and routine to work that is cognitive and non-routine. The enablers of this are mathematical breakthroughs modeling belief space and cloud robotics.
Human labor involves very little capex but high opex. Robots come with a diametrically opposed cost structure: their up-front capital costs are high, but their operating costs are minor—robots don't get a salary. As the capex of robots continues to go down, the opex of humans becomes comparatively more expensive.
STAY THIRSTY: Genomics.
ALEC ROSS: The last trillion-dollar industry was built on a code of 1s and 0s. The next will be built on our own genetic code. Over the past half century, we've witnessed unparalleled advances in the life sciences. Artificial hearts, new wonder drugs, organ transplants, and other developments allow people to live longer, healthier lives. What is next? Precision medicines which are tailored to a specific person's genetics and the characteristics of their cancer or other illnesses. This will have the same eye-popping, positive impact on life expectancies as the last half century's advances. Look for longer life expectancies for us all.
STAY THIRSTY: Blockchain technology.
ALEC ROSS: In the same way HTML became the protocol markup language for the World Wide Web, the blockchain may have the technological ingenuity to become the protocol for trusted transactions. The World Wide Web was essentially made by HTML, which made the Internet something visible, accessible, and easily navigable—and that allowed other innovations to be layered on top of the platform. The blockchain makes trusted transactions the basis—the protocol—on which much else can be built including legal contracts, asset exchanges including stock trade settlements and money transfers. This could unleash the next wave of disintermediation, transforming age-old sectors.
STAY THIRSTY: Computer code as a weapon.
ALEC ROSS: The weaponization of code is the most significant development in warfare since the weaponization of fissile material and has created a domain of conflict with no widely held norms or rules. Unfortunately, it is also 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. We had a good twenty year run from 1994 to 2014 where security could remain a (mostly) secondary concern online. This is now over. We now need to build every new digital product with security in mind.
STAY THIRSTY: Big data.
ALEC ROSS: Land was the raw material of the agricultural age. Iron was the raw material of the industrial age. Data is the raw material of the information age. Big data is inherently contradictory. It is both intimate and expansive. It examines small facts and aggregates these finite facts into information that can be both comprehensive and personalized. Academics have likened it to both a microscope and telescope—a tool that allows us to both examine smaller details than could previously be observed and to see data at a larger scale, revealing correlations that were previously too distant for us to notice.
STAY THIRSTY: Empowering people.
ALEC ROSS: The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak. The key to empowering people is for leaders (at government and at work) to do away with their autocratic impulses and recognize that the kind of control that was possible 30 years ago is not possible (or desirable) today. I'm convinced that those societies that disadvantage women and minorities in their economies will founder in the industries of the future and those that do the most to systematically advantage all members of societies – those that believe in broad-based empowerment – will be the winners. Don't be a control freak!