Androids, cyber criminals, and ingenious scientists who push the limits of knowledge are mainstays of science fiction. But little by little, they've been moving from the imaginations of writers into the real world, and they're changing it – for better and for worse.
Most of us can't stop the march of innovation, and perhaps we wouldn't want to. But we can try to understand it and respond in a way that prepares us well for the future.
A good place to start is "The Industries of the Future," a new book by Alec Ross. It's based on what he observed while travelling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as her senior adviser on innovation.
In the book, Ross focuses on robotics, genomics, cyber security, big data, and the shape of future markets, particularly in the digital realm. It's a clear-eyed view of the future and the implications of impending change, enhanced by anecdotes, case studies, and his own nuanced insight.
When I interviewed Ross for our Expert Interview podcast, we started by talking robots.
"I think the robots of the movies from the 1970s will be the reality of the 2020s," he predicts. "There have been some recent developments in mathematics, for example in the modelling of 'belief space,' which will allow robots to go from being dominantly two-dimensional beings to three-dimensional beings."
In other words, they'll be more like us. This development will be coupled with advances in technology that can link the physical robot to a "brain" in cyberspace.
"So long as they are connected to the hive mind of 'the Cloud,' [robots] have powers of cognition," Ross explains. "I think that these two things are enabling the creation of robots that look like they come straight out of science fiction, and we'll mainstream them in years to come."
While many of us might appreciate a robot housekeeper, cook or babysitter, the idea of a robot co-worker is not so appealing. And how about a robot competitor, who doesn't get tired, learns at the speed of light, and never makes mistakes? Is it starting to sound a bit scary?
"In the past, robots and automation largely replaced 'blue-collar labor,' the work of men with strong shoulders, inside ports, factories, mills, and mines," Ross reflects. "Now that robots are increasingly able to do work that isn't merely manual and routine, but increasingly cognitive and non-routine, I think that we will see the beginning of displacement of some 'white-collar labor'."
He uses the legal profession as an example, citing his father who was a country lawyer his entire working life.
"Most of what he did for 40 years was prepare big stacks of paper for people to spend 30 minutes signing when they bought or sold a house," he says. "It's 'white-collar work.' It does involve some measure of cognition, but I believe that that kind of labor can be substituted by artificial intelligence and robotics."
There is a positive side to all this, Ross says, pointing out that robots can take on work that is "dull, dreary or dangerous," and relieve us humans of a lot of repetitive and time-consuming tasks. We will then have time to focus on things that the robots will never be able to do: activities based on emotional intelligence, persuasion and the interpretation of non-verbal behavior. Whether there will be enough of that type of work to go around is "an open question,” Ross admits.
Ross’s book is sobering in its forecasts, predicting a world that's very different from the one we know and just around the corner. How should we respond to the changes on their way? In this audio clip, from our Expert Interview podcast, Ross offers his thoughts on preparing for the future.
"It leads to what the author calls “assertive play” – not brick-on-skull assertive, but self-confident engagement, where people know they have things to contribute, and stake their claim."- Jonathan Hancock