Six Global Tech Trend Insights from Hillary Clinton’s Former Innovation Advisor Alec Ross


It’s a complex time we live in, and in his new book “Industries of the Future,” Alec Ross sets himself the ambitious task of explaining how key technological developments and investments around the globe are re-aligning the landscape of opportunities for future generations.

Ross was Hillary Clinton’s former senior advisor for innovation when she served as U.S. Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013. It was a post created for him after Ross served as a member of then Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill)’s Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Policy Committee during the 2008 presidential election.

During his tenure, Ross modernized the way the State Department conducted its diplomacy, helped Clinton and Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter think through key cyberspace policy initiatives, and travelled around the globe helping American allies solve problems through the strategic use of communications technologies.

Like a lot of us, Ross is fascinated by the power of modern technologies and their societal and cultural implications. His talent is to synthesize what he learns, and to strategically apply his knowledge in specific contexts. After he left his job advising Clinton, he continued traveling around the world advising businesses and governments based on his experiences and insights.

In “Industries of the Future,” Ross focuses his attention on the big picture implications of new developments in robotics, genomics, finance, ‘big data,’ and cybersecurity, and he does his best to put it all in demographic and cultural context. Along the way, he shares a few of his thoughts on the economic and political states of various countries he’s visited, and how he thinks they’re primed for success — or hobbled in a world made up of 7.2 billion people, a greater proportion of whom are better fed, better educated, and better connected than ever before in history.

As he writes in his chapter on robots and automation: “How societies adapt will play a key role in how competitive and how stable they are. The biggest wins from new technology will go to the societies and firms that don’t just double down on the past, but that can adapt and direct their citizens toward industries that are growing.”

Here are his six of his key insights and observations:

WOMEN, INNOVATION, & SOCIETY

One of the most fascinating themes of Ross’ book is his observations on women’s roles in the economies of the various countries that he visits.

“There is no greater indicator of an innovative culture than the empowerment of women. Fully integrating and empowering women economically and politically is the most important step that a country or company can take to strengthen its competitiveness,” he writes.

He then provides numerous examples throughout the book to illustrate his point.

Rwanda, for example, has experienced a steady level of economic growth and stability after its genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Among other things, its President, Paul Kagame, worked to modernize the economy from its agricultural roots by laying down 1,000 miles of fiber. But Rwanda also modernized and reformed its laws to ensure equality for women. Ross also recounts how Kagame reminded him in a meeting that women constitute a larger percentage of leaders in the public and private sector than men. He also points out the startling fact that:

Rwanda is the only country in the world with a democratically elected parliamentary body that is majority female.”

In China, Ross echoes Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. He points out that economic progress can in large part be chalked up to Mao Tse-Tung’s famous exhortation that women should play an equal role in the workforce, and that they “hold up half the sky.”

“The progress of women in Chinese society over the course of decades is one of the major reasons it is the economic power it is today,” he writes.

Indeed, China is home to two thirds of the world’s female self-made billionaires.

In contrast, Ross argues, Japan’s economy has stagnated because the Japanese have historically not made an effort until recently to empower women in the workplace. These are only a few of the examples sprinkled throughout the book.

ROBOTICS

Robots are set to invade our lives in one way or another. Governments and industry around the world are pouring money into initiatives to develop robots than can take care of the elderly, work in the military and in factories, and perform surgeries. Research into robots that can help the elderly is particularly big in Japan, which supports a large and growing elderly population.

Ross expects robot automation to take hold faster in Asia because of a higher culture of acceptance of the machines.

“There are over 100 automation departments in Chinese universities, compared with approximately 76 in the United States despite the larger total number of universities in the United States,” he writes.

Toyota has built a whole “family” of robots, which includes “Robina,” a nursing robot. Panasonic has built a hair washing robot. Honda is making robotic limbs in order to help paraplegics gain mobility. A Japanese company called AIST has created a robotic baby harp seal. A research lab in South Korea has created the “Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm,: which can kill up a ton of jellyfish every hour.

Robina, the nursing robot, by KAMUI/Wikimedia Commons.

Ross says that low-skilled jobs, such as janitors, factory workers, and drivers are at risk of being automated with robots. Others will still require humans working alongside robots. Robots already perform janitorial functions at the airport in Manchester, and some nursing duties at UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay in San Francisco.

“I anticipate that the same kind of protest and labor movements that advocated against free trade agreements in the 1990s will form in the 2020s once robots begin to really make their presence known in the workplace,” he predicts.
This robot from Boston Dynamics can lift 10 lb boxes and stack them on shelves.

GENOMICS

“The last trillion-dollar industry was built on a code of 1s and 0s. The next will be built on our own genetic code,” writes Ross.

Ross reports that because of advances in genomic research, the medical community will be able to better treat cancer, and even eventually perform blood tests to check for cancer.

However, the United States is at risk of losing its position as the world’s pioneer and leader in producing new drugs because of its slow, bureaucratic method of approving new drugs.

“If the Food and Drug Administration does not change its drug development process to speed the delivery of the kinds of personalize medicines made possible by genetic sequencing … then patients may go abroad (perhaps to China) for individualized treatment therapies.”

(The FDA and the way it operates is having many impacts in the drug development world. For example, some genetics companies are arbitraging their operations and moving their research and development to China, where there is less regulation.)

The U.S. government has invested millions in developing precision medicine. But it faces stiff competition from China. The Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) is now the largest genomic research center in the world. (Incidentally, the advances in genomic research have all kinds of ethical implications, some of which Ross explores. But in China, there’s already talk of a company cloning cows in order to satisfy its citizens’ meat consumption, and to compete on the global market.)

Silicon Valley As The New Rome?

Most of what Ross writes about has profound implications. But the most troubling observation comes from investor Charlie Songhurst, who compares Silicon Valley’s power to that of ancient Rome.

The basic observation is that tech platforms created in Silicon Valley will destroy industries across the world, and inject themselves as middlemen. Taxi cab owners, publishers, boutique hotel owners, and others in cities across the world will lose their ability to run independently, and will be forced to pay companies in Silicon Valley a cut of every transaction. Ross quotes Songhurst as saying:

“With these platforms, the Valley has become like ancient Rome. It exerts tribute from all of its provinces. The tribute is the fact that it owns these platform businesses. Every classified ad in Italy used to go into a town newspaper. Now it goes to Google. Pinterest will basically replace magazine sales. Now Uber dominates transport … So the global regional inequality is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Ross himself isn’t as pessimistic, arguing that each region of the world ought to make the most of their local “domain expertise” and use modern technologies to innovate. As an example, he cites the example of “iCow,” a company that runs an information service and livestock management system via text message and voice on mobile phones in Kenya. The company was developed with help from the State Department through its Apps4Africa program.

We’ll see what happens, but policymakers around the world ought to take note, and instead of blocking US companies from doing business within their borders, think about long-term policies to empower their citizens to become more tech-savvy to enable them to compete in the future.

CYBERSECURITY

In December, one of the “fathers of the Internet,” TCP/IP co-inventor Vint Cerf told VICE that one of his fears is that he’ll wake up one day and see a headline that says: “100,000 Refrigerators Attack Bank of America.”

What he meant was that the potential for mischief and destruction grows exponentially as we hook everything, and everybody, up to the Internet.

Ross writes that cybersecurity is/will be an “industry of the future,” as an increasing number of people will be hired to defend companies and governments.

Ross predicts that the market for cybersecurity services will balloon to $175 billion by the end of 2017. Currently, it’s estimated at $78 billion.

“The weaponization 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 rule” he writes.

Given that insight, it’s a bit of a shame that he wasn’t able to discuss Stuxnet, dubbed “the world’s first digital weapon,” the U.S. role in the whole affair, and the implications that go along with it.

However, he does use Shamoon, a successor computer virus, and the attempt to sabotage Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company (the most valuable company in the world) as an example of the level of damage that can be wreaked on critical infrastructure.

Big Data

The implications of the ability to amass and analyze vast troves of data are infinite. Ross zeros in on a few, their pros and cons, and potential landmines. Machine translation will improve so much that we’ll have earpieces providing instant translation. Precision agriculture will mean that farmers will be able to exploit their resources more efficiently. Children will have to be coached by parents, and warned about the idea of “data permanence.”

I learned a lot reading through this thoroughly researched book. Very few people, apart from hedge fund managers, CEOs, journalists at the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, I would imagine, have the opportunity to get such a bird’s eye view of innovative projects underway around the globe. My only complaint is that I would have liked to learn more about the policy implications of cashless societies. Sweden, apparently, is on the verge of becoming one. Ross does devote a chapter to finance, but he only really skims the surface here.

In addition, being the American diplomat that he is/was, Ross argues that open societies will always be more successful than repressive ones like Russia (he offers some pretty hilarious anecdotes about his interactions with Russian officials. I do not know how he prevented himself from bursting out laughing during those interactions.) I don’t disagree with him. But I think it’s a little more than that. I personally believe that the due process one gets in the U.S., and the respect for rule of law, are big contributors to its success. There is a reason why in times of instability, the Chinese, despite all their success, are trying to expatriate all their money, and children: They simply don’t trust many of the most basic institutions in their own society. Of course, openness and transparency (or a lack thereof) contribute to that sense of distrust.

And reams have been written about America’s laws and attitudes towards immigration and bankruptcies, and why they’ve been critical to fostering the country’s innovative business culture.

Ross’ work serves as a reminder to politicians and policymakers that investing in education is more important than ever — although sometimes it’s not clear to me that even that will help. Living in Silicon Valley, I see high-tech jobs being shipped off to China all the time. In addition to genomics, for example, a lot of video game animation is being done in China these days because it’s simply cheaper.

Now please excuse me, I have to turn on my Neato robot, make sure that my daughter’s back from her Chinese school, completing her units on Khan Academy and Codecademy …oh and then I have to plan her overseas 26- country cross-cultural immersion trip (I’m only half joking!)

For more insights, (and there are many) check out Alec Ross’ book, “Industries of the Future.”