Best-Selling Author Alec Ross Sees Robots in Your Future
Between 2009 and 2013, Alec Ross (Baltimore ’94) served as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation, allowing him a seat at the table with the world’s business and political elite. And he saw in them something familiar.
“The kids I grew up with in West Virginia and taught middle school to in West Baltimore are made of the same stuff as the people I saw in the White House Situation Room,” he says. The difference was information—who had it, and when.
In his best-selling book The Industries of the Future, Ross offers a look at the next wave of globalization, particularly how it will impact the most vulnerable. His goal is to provide a guidebook to help us all prepare for the shake-up to come.
What are the “industries of the future”?
Ross: At the core of this is data. Those who own the data, control the data, and can draw meaning from the data are going to be the ones who create industries of the future. Data enables other industries, like artificial intelligence and robotics, genomics, and the codification of money. And as we go from a world of 16 billion Internet-connected devices to 40 billion devices, the security issues will increase. So I see cybersecurity as an industry of the future, too.
What surprised you the most while writing the book?
Ross: One big thing was genomics. The commercialization of genomics is the next trillion-dollar industry. Today, the way that illnesses are diagnosed is the product of a conversation between someone who feels sick and a doctor. That’s going to be wiped out in the next 20 years. That kind of diagnosis is going to seem silly.
You mention job displacement a lot, especially as robotics advances. Can vocational education help people adjust?
Ross: Vocational education and community college are two things I’ve become obsessed with because they serve millions of people, the vast majority of whom are vulnerable in the next wave of automation of labor. The U.S. should learn from what other countries are doing—for example, Germany and its apprenticeship model. They’ve taken their vocational education and reoriented it so it matches areas where we know there will be job growth or stability. Too much of vocational education [in the U.S.] prepares high schoolers for manufacturing jobs that are only available in the developing world. We have to pivot to account for that.
What can schools do differently to help prepare students for future industries?
Ross: The role of the school counselor needs to be reoriented to focus on workforce readiness. It needs to be more than just writing college recommendations and helping adolescents manage crisis. And any school where all of the students aren’t being taught foreign languages, as well as computer languages, is negligent.
How have your findings changed how you’re raising your three children?
Ross: You have to be a relentless advocate both inside and outside the school. When the school isn’t delivering, you have to go out and get it. More and more world-class education is being delivered online. My 13-year-old is taking Mandarin. My 11-year old has taken a robotics class. All three kids are always taking supplemental classes to fill gaps.
About the Author
Alexandria Neason () is a staff writer at the Village Voice in New York. She previously covered education for The Teacher Project and Slate magazine.