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The Future of Industry and Work: A Conversation with Obama Advisor and Bestselling Author Alec Ross

In an era of nonstop innovation, speculation about the future can be exciting but also a little scary. How will new and evolving technologies impact our lives? Does automation mean robots will replace human workers? Will opportunities cluster in a few tech hubs or be spread around the U.S.? And what can companies and employees do now to prepare? 

One interesting thinker who has spent a lot of time reflecting on these questions is Alec Ross. Ross served as convener for the technology, media and telecommunications policy committee on Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. He also served as the Senior Advisor for Innovation in the State Department for four years, where he won the Distinguished Honor Award. 

In addition, Ross is the author of The New York Times best-selling book “The Industries of the Future,” in which he shares his roadmap of the industries that will shape jobs and hiring. Keen to learn more about where we might be headed, we recently spoke with Ross to get his take on the shape of things to come. 

The industries that will transform the next 20 years

So which industries will shape technology and culture in the next two decades? 

According to Ross, the game-changing industries fall into five categories: robotics, genomics, big data, the codification of money (as seen in cryptocurrencies or mobile user-to-user payment systems) and the “weaponization of code” (through cyberwarfare, hacking or new forms of surveillance). 

“There is promise and peril in all of these developments,” says Ross. “[But] there are choices we can make about how we raise our kids and how we position ourselves that will increase our viability.” 

Just as automation is changing the nature of work, genomics will reshape understandings of human biology; big data will shift our relationship with information; and coding will alter everything from money to risk management. For Ross, it’s vital that we start expanding this conversation beyond the usual audience of policymakers, entrepreneurs or CEOs so we can all prepare for what’s to come. 

“I feel like people in middle America always have — if anything — more at stake in the industries of the future than elites.” 

Gearing up for adaptation and change

The good news, says Ross, is that adaptation is a fixture of human history, and he argues that the gains of innovation will more than offset potential losses. 

Ross points to the Luddites, who protested automation in English textile manufacturing over 200 years ago: “The idea [was] that women who had spent hundreds of years at the looms could never do anything else.” Such concerns about losing jobs to technology, he says, “tend not to bear out.” 

Similar examples abound, says Ross. He points to the mechanization of farming as another displacement of labor, larger than anything he anticipates might happen as a result of AI: “Half of all [U.S.] labor as recently as 1870 was on a farm.… Today, it’s less than one out of every 100 [people]. And we produce more food, more abundant food and healthier food than ever before. ” 

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