The question Alec Ross set out to answer at the RSA today was: “If the last 25 years shaped by Internet, what comes next?” His book The Industries of the Future addresses the question more fully, but for the audience today he focussed on two examples: robots and AI, and genomics.
He began, though, with central thesis: if land was the raw material of agricultural age and iron the raw material of the industrial age, then data is the raw material of the information age.
“We now live in the age of zettabyte, he said. “90% world’s data has been produced in the last two years.” There are now 16bn internet connected devices and by 2020 that number will have grown to 40bn. “Harvesting of actionable business or medial intelligence from this data will create the trillion dollar industries of the future.”
But now for the two example industries of the future.
” The cartoons of the 70s will be the reality of 2020s,” he argues. One of the key advances is the fact that we finally seem to have cracked the problem of robots grasping – a surprisingly difficult task, he says. The other is the advent of “cloud robotics”. This means robots don’t have to be packed with hardware and software if they are connected to the cloud. “We don’t have to invent millions of very clever robots.”
He uses the example of Foxconn, the Chinese giant responsible for vast numbers of iPhones and Samsung Galaxies. Foxconn is a poster child for globalisation with 973,000 employees in China. But the ceo says he’s not going to hire any more people and instead is now buying $14k robots. He argues humans are “CAPEX-light, but OPEX-heavy” whereas robots are the opposite.
This is the start of a profound trend. “Cloud robotics coupled with rise of AI will mean a move to non-routine and cognitive work.”
The second industry of the future he focussed on is the commercialisation of genomics. “It has been 15 years since the first mapping of human genome and finally we are now within two or three years” of really beginning to reap the benefits he says. Diagnostic test are now in development with are over 100 times more sensitive than MRI scanning, holding out the prospect that we could have an annual blood test which could detect virtually all cancers at stage 1, when they are eminently curable, he predicts.
However, all these advances come with “promise and peril”.
“Tomorrow will be better than today for most of us. But you have to be pretty clever to navigate your way through with the pace of change increasing all the time.”
There were other topics which came up in the Q&A on which he had salient views:
Cyber security: “Weaponisation of code is the most signification development since the weaponisation of atoms. The difference is weaponisation of code is much easier. Once it is done it can be copied. I have a very dark view – the threat from cyber weapons is closer than that of nuclear weapons.”
The importance of gender equality: “There is a correlation between women on board and economic performance,” he said, citing a study from the Peterson Centre for International Economics.
Economics: “This the the key question,” he said. The problem dynamic is “bounty and spread”. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for $1bn it had only 20 employees. Kodak, which went bust at pretty much the same time, had 120,000 employees. When we create these internet billionaires we have a “corresponding obligation to use the resources of the plutocrats to avoid creating a violent under-privileged underclass”.
R&D: “Those states and societies (like Russia) which have dialed R&D down are saving money in the short term but killing themselves in the long run.” China, he says, is being smart. “They believe they missed out on the commercialisation of the Internet and they are putting a spectacular amount of investment in genomics and clean tech” so they don’t miss out of these coming revolutions.