The world is moving at a vast pace now compared to the Industrial Revolution, says Alec Ross, and it will not be the strongest or most intelligent who survives, but the most adaptable.
The former senior adviser for innovation to Hillary Clinton used his four years of travelling the world to write a book, The Industries of the Future, about the changes coming in the next decade – from robotics to cybersecurity, big data and what technology will do to money and markets.
Our future caretakers will be highly realistic robots, he says – Toyota and Honda are already building nursing aides to work just like Rosie, the robot housekeeper from the Jetsons cartoon.
Cloud robotics mean robots can now learn at an accelerated pace, tapping straight into big data in the cloud, and can be made from silicone or spider silk instead of clunky metal, with highly flexible components such as “air muscles” to make them humanoid.
Ross says we are only on the first page of the first chapter when it comes to robotics, as we were with the internet 20 years ago back in the dial-up days. Robots working alongside us, and even cooking dinner for our elderly parents, will happen during “most of our lifetimes”.
With robotics automating non-manual and cognitive labour, today’s youth entering tomorrow’s workforce will need to be much more nimble, he says. The best things parents can teach their children is to understand the languages and culture of the next wave of high-growth markets, such as Kenya, Uganda and Bangladesh – languages being both linguistic and technical.
“If I were 18 right now, I would major in computer science or engineering and I’d be taking Mandarin,” the former eBay chief executive John Donahoe is quoted as saying, while Google’s Eric Schmidt says that analytical skills “will never go out of style”.
Half a million miles of travel around the world to get a global perspective on technology have served Ross well.
His utopian view of the future involves dreary, dull work being done by robots, leaving us free to live life in abundance. Let’s catch up in a decade or two to see if he’s right.
q&a playing field levels out
Which continents will rise in the next 20 years?
The relative economic benefit of being born in the US or Europe has decreased over the past 20 years, Mr Ross says. Markets like China, India and the Baltics are already on the up, but he says there has “never been a better time to be born in Sub-Saharan Africa” or to do business in Africa, which is using technology to leapfrog economically, with a knowledge-based economy at its core.
Where’s the next smart city?
Cities like Dubai, New York, London, San Francisco, Tokyo and Seoul are likely to use big data to make their infrastructure work efficiently – to access government services online, provide real-time feedback and know when public transport is arriving. Cities aspiring to become global hubs, such as Jakarta and Mumbai, need to invest in infrastructure and big data simultaneously.
What about Europe?
Mr Ross says he believes Mediterranean Europe – France in particular – is stagnating because it makes young digital natives wait decades for authority. It’s not by chance, he says, that information-age companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Oracle were started by people in their 20s in the US.
Is it too late for me to learn programming?
Never. Ross cites two programmes set up to teach people to code for free online – Codeacademy with 24 million subscribers, and Scratch, a project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which teaches programming in more than 40 languages, with more than five million projects developed.
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