My conversation with Alec Ross: How technology will change our economy and culture

The technology revolution continues at a fevered pace, while the global economy slows down. People are rightly concerned and intrigued about the future. There is much to be worried and excited about in every economic sector and aspect of human life.

Alec Ross is one of our nation’s top experts on innovation. In his new book, "The Industries of the Future," Ross offers an in-depth analysis of the relationship between technology and government, business, and education, and predicts how future innovation will disrupt society as we know it.

For an inside look at what’s to come in the modern world, check out my interview with Alec below:

DANA PERINO: In the beginning of "The Industries of the Future," you say the book you wish your father and grandfather had read would have been about what globalization was going to do to the world. Is your new book the 2016 equivalent to that?

ALEC ROSS:  It is! The mission of the book is to help people see around the corner a little bit, to better understand the forces that are going to shape our futures at home and work so that we can make choices for ourselves and for our children to help us get ready.

PERINO: In the chapter, “Here Come the Robots,” you write that what we have experienced in the form of manufacturing job loss due to robots is now encroaching on the service job sector. Is that cause for additional worry, or is there a way to turn that into a positive?

ROSS: The robots from the cartoons and movies of the 1970s are going to be the reality of the 2020s. In the future, it will increasingly be the case that when you go to work, either you’re telling a machine what to do or a machine is telling you what to do. This is very scary if you are in a job that can be easily automated. I think there are certain jobs in the service industry that will always require “the human touch”, but there are many more that won’t. I helped put myself through college by working as a midnight janitor. I think of folks who had jobs like mine mopping floors or washing dishes, and I worry about them.

The way for us to make this a positive is for us to do a better job as a country of making sure that today’s kids are getting the education and skills they need for tomorrow’s economy. It’s hard enough for us to compete with cheap labor in a global marketplace, if we’re now competing with robots who don’t get paid a salary, well, you’d better have some other job skills.

PERINO: Regarding genomics and “The Future of the Human Machine,” are discussions about what’s right and wrong when it comes to genetic engineering already being overtaken by events? Is there so much advancement in the science and technology that the moral arguments are moot?

ROSS: No! We should never let science and technology overtake our values. Let’s not lose our humanity as we do the good and important work of continuing to innovate.

For example, scientists are now able to tell just 10 weeks into pregnancy a lot of genetic characteristics of the baby from its likely height, hair and eye colors, to more shocking information about its likelihood to get certain illnesses or have certain predispositions, like alcoholism. This will be mainstream in about 2 years. Just because we can do this scientifically does not mean we should start using genetic selection to only bring to term those babies that match our idea of what is perfect. Genes can tell us a lot but not everything. Who a child becomes is more a product of environment and upbringing than DNA.

PERINO: How should your research on “The Geography of Future Markets” affect decisions by governments on trade deals?

ROSS: I think that in a global economy, trade deals tend to benefit the United States so I’m all for them. When middle classes grow larger around the world you know what they end up doing? Going to American movies. Listening to American music. Buying American technology. Even buying our breakfast cereals and taking the big annual family vacation to Disney World. This is to our economic benefit. What’s more, sometimes our businesses will make progress with a foreign country’s citizens when our governments are squabbling with each other. The research I did for"The Industries of the Future" made me all the more in favor of the U.S. being able to sell American products wherever we can.

PERINO: I thought that "The Industries of the Future" was in many ways a parenting book, and then in the conclusion you write that the most important job you’ll ever have is being a dad. What do you want parents who read your book to take away? 

ROSS: Three things:

1. Make sure your kids are studying languages, foreign languages, computer languages and mastering the English language (we need better communicators!)

2. Don’t rely on your schools to educate your kids. Yes, we need to hold them to account and push for the best possible education at school but we can’t count on them. Hold yourself to account, too. My mom had a nickname when I was growing up, “Becky the Barbarian.” She earned that nickname because she was such a ferocious advocate for her kids at school and home, and that’s why a public school kid from West Virginia was able to write this book.

3. Understand and accept that we live in a more global economy, and that means our kids need to learn more about the 195 countries in the world that aren’t the United States.

PERINO: You seem bullish yet a bit cautious about what the industries of the future will hold for humans. Would you describe yourself as a glass half-full kind of person after writing the book?

ROSS: Some people may think it’s hokey, but I’m a believer in the American Dream. I believe in the American Dream because I’m living it and that most certainly makes me a glass half-full person!

My grandfather was the son of Italian immigrants, and he had to ride the rails during the Depression to hustle for work and food. Just two generations removed from that, I’m living a life for which I am very, very grateful. The industries of the future will produce disruptive change for millions of Americans, but it can be a positive change if we get in front of it and prepare ourselves. It’s not the strongest who succeed, or the most intelligent, but those most adaptable to change.