Sustainable Growth

Alec Ross on How the Next Wave of Innovation Will Change Our World

March 23, 2016  • Zach St. Louis

Key Points

  • As technology becomes more integrated into daily life, the ways human-performed tasks are accomplished will see drastic transformations.
  • In the next phase of innovation, technology will replace some white collar labor.
  • Integrating more engineering, computer science, and other vocational training into traditional education is the best way to prepare young Americans for the economic changes to come.

Above, watch the full conversation featuring “The Industries of the Future” author Alec Ross and Aspen Institute President & CEO Walter Isaacson.

Technology has grown incredibly in the last 20 years, both in its ubiquity and its sophistication. From constant connectivity with our mobile devices to artificial intelligence and robotics helping to care for loved ones, these advancements have, on the whole, made our lives more interconnected, informed, and efficient. But as this trend continues and technology becomes even more integrated into daily life, the ways in which human-performed tasks are accomplished will almost inevitably see drastic transformations. How can we as individuals and as a society prepare for the shifts that are imminently on the horizon? These are the exact questions tech policy expert Alec Ross attempts to address in his book “The Industries of the Future”, which he sat down to discuss as part of the Aspen Institute Gildenhorn Book Series. Ross, the former senior advisor for innovation to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote this book to, in his own words, “provide some tools to deal with the anxiety and dislocation that’s going to come from the next wave of innovation.”

Economic Changes

“If you are in your forties or older, it is hard medicine to take to be told that you need re-training,” Ross said in describing how new technologies may affect current workers. “Humans are much more difficult to upgrade than software.” In the past, technology mostly replaced blue-collar labor, but in the next phase of innovation, Ross sees this happening to white collar jobs as well. He argues that cognitive but repetitive positions, such as a law clerk’s role, will be replaced by technology that can perform those same tasks at a fraction of the time and cost. This will ultimately create a consumer surplus, but might be bad news for those skilled employees who currently hold those positions.

For new employees, Ross explained that the old job model of starting out on the ground floor working one’s way up the ladder will, if it hasn’t already, vanish. As employees become more independent and work becomes more project-based (due in large part to disruptive technologies that connect services directly to consumers), we will need to reassess what employment is and perhaps even adapt our social compact and safety net programs to meet the demands of this new style of work.

According to Ross, the finance and health care sectors are two areas that have been slow to change but are next in line to be disrupted by technology. “Right now, it’s a pain in the neck to move money around the globe,” he said. “But there are tools that will take what has been a headache, and reduce it to near nothing.” He cites the rise of M-PESA in Kenya, a mobile banking platform, which is far more efficient and sophisticated than anything we have in the US. “In areas of higher scarcity, they are solving problems that we don’t perceive to be problems in more highly developed markets.”

Preparing the Next Generation

Ross feels that we are not doing enough in the US to set up the next generation for success within the industries of the future. “We have to map the outputs of our educational system against where there can and will be job growth,” which he argues is something that is not taken seriously enough by policymakers or institutions of primary and secondary education.

When looking to other countries like China, which are making huge pivots in education to focus on the necessary skills that will be rewarded in the future, Ross believes the US is lagging behind. Integrating more engineering, computer science, and other vocational training into traditional education, he said, is the best way to prepare young Americans for the economic changes to come.

Yet, he does not advocate for focusing solely on the STEM fields in schools. “The people who are leading tomorrow’s industries will have an understanding of that which is scientific and technical, but combine it with aptitudes that are traditional humanities in things like communications and behavioral psychology,” he explained. He points to Facebook as an example, saying that its design was equal parts genius in computer science and in behavioral psychology.

While we are unable to say exactly when these transformations may occur, or just how drastic they will be, they are certainly approaching. And if innovation continues at the same rate it has over the last two decades, we can be sure that the next two will lead us to places we never thought possible.