We are on the brink of a major technological moment, with global, economic, and social implications, according to Alec Ross, author of The Industries of the Future. Out today, Ross’s book draws on his experience as Senior Advisor for Innovation under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which he visited 41 countries to see, firsthand, the way the world is changing. TechRepublic spoke to Ross about his takeaways for what the world will look like, and how to prepare for our future.
Robotics today are what the internet was 20 years ago
Ross believes that “today’s robots are going to look like the PCs of 1993 pretty soon.” A big reason for this, he said, is that “cloud robotics has taken the traditional development model for robots, what we historically might have thought was necessary in terms of hardware and software in-unit, and radically transformed that.”
That, in turn, has transformed the economic equation as well. “By enabling a robot to draw from the intelligence in the cloud and therefore not needing such spectacular processing power inside the unit,” he said, the cost will drop significantly.
The spread of innovation will be uneven
The robot revolution will have different effects, said Ross, and whether or not countries reap benefits will depend on how quickly they adapt. He highlights Japan, Germany, and South Korea as the countries that are best positioned. Although China and the US are also part of the “Big 5” in robotics, the smaller companies that have headquarters for big robotics companies have created an “outsize benefit on a per capita basis.”
Challenging traditional economic models of labor
Semi-skilled labor can now become robotic labor, said Ross. In China, where hundreds of millions are employed in semi-skilled work, robots will have a huge effect. “The fact that there are new equilibrium points in the human/robot labor cost trade-off that is hitting semi-skilled labor, in China, is a really big deal,” he said.
The US, on the other hand, is a relatively high cost labor market. Over the last 20 years, most displaced labor has been blue-collar.
The introduction of robots in the US will be “great for certain segments of America and Americans,” Ross said. “There will be more billionaires. There will be more millionaires.” He sees more people working in engineering and robotics. Yet there will also be a huge group of displaced workers. And while, in the past, it was mostly manual labor that took a hit, robotics is now “doing work that is increasingly cognitive and non-routine,” he said. “The next wave of jobs that will be replaced are lower-level white-collar workers, which require some cognition and a lot of repetition.”
And the impact, Ross said, is personal. Jobs like what Ross’s own father had, as a real estate lawyer in West Virginia, of which a large part was collecting signatures, may be rendered obsolete. “I can’t help but think that the combination of AI plus blockchain technology can wipe out the kind of work that my father did for 45 years.”
Ross sees East Asia as the first large-scale adopters of robots. Why? It’s cultural. Westerners, he said, are much more worried about robots, whereas eastern cultures, and the belief in animism, makes them “inherently less hostile to artificial intelligence and robotics,” he said. “Robots don’t have the cultural baggage in the East that they have in the West.”
For example, in the US, “if you see a little neo-robot on a student’s desk, some people think, ‘God, that’s messed up. Why is it that a 2-foot tall robot is teaching that 10-year-old how to do her multiplication tables?'”
But in Japan, South Korea, or China? “It’s a non-issue,” Ross said.
Get ready for a rebellion
Job layoffs are guaranteed; the question is, what will happen with displaced workers? “Anytime labor patterns change,” said Ross, “there is unrest.”
Living in Baltimore, he has seen, firsthand, what happens when a group of people experience deep anxiety and a sense of unfairness over their economic prospects, which is what he felt was at the heart of recent protests. “It won’t surprise me at all if [we see] the kind of protests we saw around the Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s,” he said. “In the 2020s, I could imagine the same kind of protests against robotic labor.”
Preparing for industries of the future
Ross thinks that investing in areas like vocational education and community college is critical, with the potential to serve millions of Americans. “The vocational ed of 2016 is largely unchanged from the vocational ed of 1956,” he said. “What we have do is we have to look at what the industries of the future are and radically reorient how we deliver vocational education.”
Since these types of education focus on “historically, a very vulnerable segment of the population,” it is critical to prepare this group with what lies ahead. “There are lots of job openings that will be available, with things like an associate’s degree in cyber security, for example,” he said. “We’ve got to radically reorient our approach to community college.”
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- Robots will affect countries differently depending on how well and quickly they adapt–Japan, Germany, and South Korea are best positioned to welcome the transition.
- There are major socioeconomic consequences that will come from a class of displaced workers. Civil unrest and protests could result as a backlash against robots.
- Investing in vocational education is crucial to the strength of the US economy and its future workforce.