Industries of the Future — Alec Ross

So I’m finally reading “The Industries of the Future” by Alec Ross.

One of the (many) good things about an Easter break on the beach in sunny Florida is that I get to read non fiction. I pretty much always have a novel on the go in London, but for some reason I find I need more time / headspace (call it what you will) for non fiction. And there’s nothing better for that than a bracing sea breeze and Floridian sunshine after a long British winter.

So I’m finally reading “The Industries of the Future” by Alec Ross.

It’s a breathless gallop through the way that technological developments are and will continue to shape society from genomic research to robots and the creation and analysis of big data, all the way to technology as a weapon of war and the concomitant rise of cybersecurity as we figure out how to make all these connected devices, driverless cars and all the rest function properly and safely.

As befitting a writer who spent time at the centre of the mainstream US political establishment (remember when that was still a thing?) as a Senior Advisor to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (remember when she was still a thing?), there is too much focus (for my taste) on the wicked and perfidious Chinese and (much more to my taste) Russian-inspired subterfuge (I’m sure the US would never stoop to such depths), but overall it is a really thoughtful and eye opening read.

A few things that stood out for me.

One in eight of the world’s most cited scientists — the people who are creating the raw material that drives long term innovation — are from the developing world, but eight in ten live in developed countries. The smartest people want to work with like minded people. And the countries that welcome and foster the creation of these top performing research teams (and presumuably their families), those countries that create a welcoming environment for them and people like them, will benefit exponentially over time. It’s a point that anyone involved in policy development would do well to note, particularly in these dark and difficult days.

There’s a long section on the “sharing economy”, which as Ross declares, is one of the great misnomers, and as he says in a brief discussion of Airbnb and Uber, to the extent there is an ideology, it is “neo-liberalism…encouraging the exchange of goods without government regulation”. Uber is lionised for its ambition to take 1 million cars off the road, and create 100,000 jobs (in London alone). Mmmm. Driverless cars anyone? A rare, but glaring miss.

There is, too, less discussion than I would have liked about the implications of all this stuff on social and economic policy. Rather than pages setting out the way in which Russians influenced Ukrainian and Georgian elections (presumably a new edition will move closer to home!), I would love to have read more from this incredibly smart writer on the implications of the Airbnb / Uber / Deliveroo-isation of the economy on social policy, perspectives on the appropriate taxation strategies on those those smart and driven enough to create and benefit from these enormous success stories (and their robots) and the creation of social safety nets for those at the other end of the spectrum whose livelihoods are likely to be challenged as this future merges into our present day existences.

Overall, though, a fascinating and enlightening glimpse into what might lie ahead in this world, increasingly driven by the zettabyte and its slightly more manageable siblings. Wonderful stuff.

And as a bonus, I picked up two tips for my teenage daughters as they think about what course in life they want to take professionally. Forget languages, soon we will all be multi lingual. Join, instead, the cybersecurity revolution.

But a word of caution. We do, after all, live in a world where conductor-less (let alone driverless) trains appear to be deemed as a step too far in certain parts of SW London (even though they run on rails and surely a computer can control that more readily than a car on a road) and where one accident for a driverless car brings live testing to a juddering (though short-lived) halt in Arizona, perhaps the greatest challenge for the Brins, Musks and the titans of the tech age will be to drag the rest of us mere mortals along for the ride.