BOOK REVIEW: Watch out for the robot revolution

The Industries of the Future: How the Next 10 years of Innovation will Transform our Lives at Work and Home, by Alec Ross

AUTHOR Alec Ross is a technology policy expert who was Senior Advisor for Innovation to secretary of state Hillary Clinton. He is now a Senior Fellow at Columbia University. This book is a New York Times bestseller. Here is why.

The most important job you will ever have will be to understand the future, so that you can guide your children’s development into it.

The last wave of innovation and globalisation, which centred on digitisation and the internet, produced winners and losers. Among the winners were the investors, entrepreneurs, people with high skills levels, and those who focused on fast-growing markets and new inventions.

In this period more than a billion people rose from poverty into the middle class in the developing countries. They achieved this because their labour was sold at low cost, and their countries had entered the global economy.

And there were the losers. They generally came from countries where the cost of their poorly skilled labour was high, and they could not train up to the needs of the technological changes and the competition of global markets. In the past they could have found work in the textile industry or in mining. Textiles in South Africa lost to the countries with cheaper labour, and mining was slimmed down by mechanical and technological advances.

“And all this change will pale in comparison to what is going to come in the next wave of innovation, as it hits all 196 countries on the planet,” Ross explains.

In the near future, Ross points out, people will be able to wear robot suits that will enable paraplegics to walk. They will ingest designer drugs which will melt away certain forms of cancer. Computer code will be the new international currency.

Computer code will be the new weapon that will be able to destroy physical infrastructure on the other side of the world.
This book explores the industries that will drive the next 20 years of change to our economies and societies. These are industries producing cutting edge advances in robotics.

They are advancing the life sciences that will change the way we work and live. These industries codify money, and use code as weapons (and prevent codes being used as weapons) and other industries will take data, the raw material of the information age, and advance society through this.

The advances these industries will make and the wealth they generate will not accrue evenly. Again, there will be winners and many losers.

A sense of the message of this very rich book can be seen from the section on robotics.

Japan is already the world leader in robotics, operating 25% of all the industrial robots in existence across the world.
Twenty-five percent of Japanese are over 65, and the country's birth rate is very low. The consequence of this demographic is that there will not be enough people to care for grandparents.

Robots to care for the elderly

Enter the robots. The future caretakers of the aged are being developed right now in a Japanese factory. Toyota and Honda are using their mechanical engineering proficiency to invent the next generation of robots.

Robina, for example, is a 60 kilogram, 1.2 metre tall ‘female’ robot. She can communicate using words and gestures. “She has wide-set eyes, a moptop hairdo, and even a flowing white metallic skirt.” Humanoid (‘male’) is a multipurpose home assistant. He can do the dishes, take care of your sick, aged parents, and can even entertain them by playing the trumpet or violin.

Honda’s ASIMO can interpret human emotions, movements and conversation. It can help the patient get out of bed and even hold a conversation. ‘Walking Assist’ is a device that wraps around the legs and backs of people with weakened leg muscles so they can move on their own.

Robots of this kind will be the rare technology that starts with grandma showing her cutting-edge gadget to her children and grandchildren.

Japan, the United States, and Germany dominate the high-value industrial and medical robot arena, and South Korea and China are now the major producers of less expensive consumer-orientated robots.

Already at Manchester Airport in England there are robot janitors that navigate the cleaning of their work areas, using laser scanners and ultrasonic detectors. If a person gets in the way, the robot will say: “Excuse me, I am cleaning,” with a perfect English accent, and work around the person.

“The first wave of labour substitution from automation and robotics came from jobs that were often dangerous, dirty, and dreary and involved little personal interaction,” Ross explains. However, jobs that require situational awareness, spatial reasoning and dexterity, contextual understanding and human judgement are now starting to be performed by robots.

These include waitressing (the Hajime restaurant in Bangkok has robot waiters to take orders, serve customers, and clean tables) hairdressing (Panasonic created a 24-fingered hairwashing robot that has been tested in Japanese salons) and driverless cars (Google, and soon - Uber?).

Will Uber drivers become obsolete?

An Oxford study of more than 700 occupations suggests that over half of US jobs could be at risk of computerisation in the next two decades. Forty-seven percent are at high risk of robot takeover, and 19% face a medium level of risk. Replacing a trial lawyer may take a while, but not the replacement of a paralegal.

Consider the impact on those working in the jobs accessible to lower skilled people, jobs that offer first-time employment, and the route out of poverty. There are 2.3 million people currently employed at waiting on tables in the United States. There are 162 000 Uber drivers. This route out of poverty will slam closed.

The future industries are currently frontier economies, but they will move into the economic mainstream rapidly. The next wave will be a challenge to the middle classes everywhere, with the threat of a return to poverty.

“I have been fortunate enough to gain a glimpse of what lies around the next corner. This book is about the next economy. It is written for everyone who wants to know how the next wave of innovation and globalization will affect our countries, our societies, and ourselves,” Ross explains.

This book is a must read for all of us, if not as business people who must lead our companies into the future, then as moms and dads who owe it to our children to equip them for their future.

Readability:      Light ----+ Serious
Insights:         High +---- Low
Practical:         High ----+ Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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