The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross: Book review

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Published: July 31, 2016 6:07:51 AM

Just think of a world where robot suits allow paraplegics to walk, designer drugs melt away certain forms of cancer and computer codes are used as international currencies, as well as weapons to destroy physical infrastructure

BitcoinJust think of a world where robot suits allow paraplegics to walk, designer drugs melt away certain forms of cancer and computer codes are used as international currencies, as well as weapons to destroy physical infrastructure.

Just think of a world where robot suits allow paraplegics to walk, designer drugs melt away certain forms of cancer and computer codes are used as international currencies, as well as weapons to destroy physical infrastructure. At first, you might think this isn’t possible, but if you give it deep thought, you will realise that all these trends are gaining momentum and our world is definitely drifting in this direction. In fact, ripples of these examples can already be felt in our system and it’s only a matter of time when these will turn into full-fledged waves. In this context, Alec Ross, the author of The Industries of the Future, talks about six industries that will dominate our canvas in the next 10 years.

Five of these are robotics, advanced life sciences, codification of money, cyber security and big data, while the sixth is more in the realm of geopolitical, cultural and generational contexts from which they are emerging. Ross also cautions that all this innovative transcendence will not be without negatives—just like the steam engine made a certain category of labour irrelevant, these disruptive innovations, too, will have their own repercussions. For instance, robotics and artificial intelligence, along with changes in life sciences, will surely alter the way we live, but these will also negatively impact labour forces in, say, agriculture or industry. Similarly, advances in life sciences will let people live longer, but will be restricted only to those who can afford it. Things could also get awkward when some of these innovations, like big data, are misused or hacked.

Ross gives some examples to drive home the point. Toyota and Honda have already created robots to take care of the geriatric population—there’s a home assistant that helps in doing all the household chores, while other robots can emote like human beings and also converse with us. Robotic limbs are also getting more common these days, while driverless cars will soon eliminate chauffeurs, as well as cabs.

In the field of life sciences, the day is not far when a liquid biopsy involving a tiny drop of blood will be able to tell you where a tumour is located. Medicines will then be administered that can stop these mutations. Hence, every part of the body will be open to medical hacking. But the unintended consequences of such innovations are the creation of designer babies who can swim or become good athletes, attain a pre-specified height, etc.

As far as codification of money is concerned, it’s already in place. Mobile payments are rampant in Africa and the author gives the example of Congo, where large amounts of monetary transactions happen through mobile phones. The sharing economy, too, has manifested itself through Uber and Ola taxi services across the world. But the biggest revolution has been the Bitcoin, which goes beyond PayPal and eBay in terms of enhancing financialisation. The credit goes to the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, who started the independent financial mode of transaction that keeps aside all central banks and their currencies. It has been motivated by the loss of faith in states and the way in which they manage currencies. Bitcoin, limited in number and accepted by several merchants, has provided an alternative, which is ‘hacking-proof’.

Hacking is a major concern and the author gives the example of how the computer systems of Saudi Aramco, a Saudi Arabian national petroleum and natural gas company, were hacked by Shamoon—also known as Disttrack—a modular computer virus. This impacted the entire energy business. Interestingly, while the Internet was created to survive nuclear attacks, it has also led to a new class of attacks. In 2014, there was a successful cyber attack on Sony from North Korea, and similar possibilities can’t be ruled out in the future.

Big data is the fifth industry, which will take over, as all of us get ‘catalogued and monetised’. Big data, which is used for research purposes, is very useful for precision agriculture and will help improve productivity. The advantage is that it’s located in the Cloud and not on earth. Algorithmic trading is already rampant and will accelerate, as we move ahead. But with these sophisticated systems, it’s possible that everything about us is out in the open.

Finally, the author has an interesting take on the geography of markets, where he contrasts differences in countries in similar conditions. The difference is with having an open or closed system, which provides us some direction for the future. The Web has changed the living conditions of women in Pakistan. Estonia and Belarus started off similarly, but Estonia resembles any western European country today, while Belarus stagnates. Ukraine has also slipped by following Belarus’ model. Chile and Columbia have fostered innovation and technology, while Venezuela and Ecuador are dysfunctional even today. China brought about women empowerment, while Japan could not. Rwanda has recovered to become a leader, while Congo stagnates. Russia is where it is, as it has not embraced the Internet and worked towards spreading knowledge and information.

Some interesting innovations, which have local adaptations, are also mentioned. ‘Icow’ in Kenya is a voice-based mobile messenger, giving all information on cows—menstruation, milking, marketing, etc. ‘Grainy bunch’ in Tanzania is the intelligence service on food grains, which analyses the main links of the product: production and procurement, storage and distribution. These local innovations are on the rise, as countries make use of low-cost solutions to address their problems.

This book is interesting and paints a futurist picture, which is in its infancy. The only thing that remains to be seen is how soon it will happen across the globe. The world will definitely see this through just like it did the industrial and technology revolutions in the last couple of centuries. Surveillance will be important to check cyber attacks, while mankind auto-adjusts to the new wave of innovation. That’s the basic message of this very enjoyable book.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

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