Digital Transformation: Preparing for the Future (Part 2)

This is the final episode of our two-part conversation with Alec Ross (@AlecJRoss), digital transformation expert and author of The New York Times bestseller: The Industries of the Future. Read part 1 here.

Innovation expert Alec Ross breaks down what’s next for the digital world. He helps us anticipate the advances and stumbling blocks that will emerge in the next ten years, and takes us to school on how to navigate them.

In this must-read interview, Ross addresses some tough questions:

  • How will we adapt to the changing nature of work?
  • Will the weaponizing of artificial intelligence spark the next arms race?
  • Where will the innovation hotspots of the future be?
  • How can business and government leaders take advantage of disruptive change?

Hope you enjoy the conversation.

Appian: So, it sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about the future.

Ross: I’d say that I’m more optimistic than pessimistic about the future. I think the future is going to be better than the past. I’m 46 years of age. When I was born, the mean life expectancy, globally, was 57 years of age.

Today, it’s 72. And I think the slope on that graph is likely to continue. If I live into my 80s, life expectancy could get up into the 90s.

So, the trend is that people are going to live longer lives. They’ll also live healthier lives.  They will be more active later in life.

Our ability to access knowledge will become ever easier. I do think things, net-net, are going to be positive but well short of utopian.

The future won’t be Star Trek—or Mad Max

Appian: What about the acceleration of change? How will the speed of disruption impact life in the future?

Ross: It will take away the predictability of: “I’ve got a college degree, so I can go work at company X for 30 years utilizing these skills.” That kind of security I think is gone, and it’s not coming back. So, the future is promise and peril—not Star Trek, but it’s also not Mad Max.

Labor Automation Boosts Worker Productivity

Appian: To pick up on that point, what do you make of the conflict between automation and labor, and the cynics who mostly see a future where human labor is displaced by technology and machines?

Ross: I have a nuanced view of it.

Technology has always substituted labor. And it tends not to happen evenly over time. There are spikes. And most of the automation of labor is a net positive.

Pretty much every process that is dominantly manual and routine, has been substituted by technology. And I think this is a good thing, because it pushes us into more productive forms of labor.

Appian: What about the human impacts of automation? How do you see that playing out in the long term?

Get comfortable with change

Ross: Humans are not as easy to update as software. You can’t plug us into the wall, turn on the Wi-Fi, and in an hour our operating system is upgraded. That’s not the way we work. It’s much more difficult for us to adapt.

I think that you have to be willing to take the long view and say: “Over decades this is going to be good for all of us. The pain of job displacement in the short term is real. So, it all depends on your perspective and your time frame.

But the fact that human labor has gone from being dull, dreary and dangerous and to being more productive and more cognitive is not a bad thing.

Get Comfortable with Change

Appian: Which brings me to the topic of digital transformation. It’s a hot topic, but it means different things to different people. How would you define digital transformation for non-tech, senior execs?

Ross: To me it’s all about a very powerful set of tools that weren’t available to people 20 years ago, tools that enable us to work better, faster and cheaper.  My father was a real estate lawyer in Hurricane, West Virginia. And he spent most of his life writing the same darn words on a yellow legal pad.

When that was no longer necessary, he just couldn’t adapt. He just couldn’t wrap his mind around: “I don’t need to write things out with a blue pen on a yellow note pad like I’ve been doing for the last 30 years.”

Digital transformation takes those thousands of hours that my father wasted writing things down; and does it in seconds or minutes, and the quality and accuracy is better.

So, digital transformation is about making sure that humans aren’t doing rote work, and that they’re doing work that is cognitive and creative instead.

Biggest barrier to digital transformation: Human behavior

Appian: What are the biggest barriers to digital transformation?

Ross: I think it’s culture and being conditioned to doing things the same way. Again, I think about my father in West Virginia. You know, he didn’t adapt culturally.  He wouldn’t change his behavior.

And so, I think the institutions and individuals that have the hardest time with digital transformation are those who just aren’t comfortable with change, or don’t trust that it will lead to a better life and a more productive way to work.

So, at the end of the day, it’s human behavior and culture that restricts and restrains digital transformation more than anything else.

Genomics: The next trillion-dollar industry

Appian: Earlier, you talked about education and the human side of digital transformation. From a strategic standpoint, what are some of the tough decisions we’re going to have to make on the public policy side of the digital transformation equation?

Ross: I would point to two things. The first is education. Are we willing to transition from education systems that are products of the industrial age to education systems that are products of the information age? If we aren’t willing to make that transition, and also improve technical education for people who don’t go to college, then large numbers of people will get left behind.

The second thing I would point to is the safety net. There are some people who can’t or won’t adapt. And the question is, what do we do for them? Our safety net is in place to keep people from abject poverty.

There will be some people who just can’t adapt. So, the question is what should we be doing for the people who get left behind, in an increasingly globalized, AI-driven economy?

Appian: Last question. Tell me about your expectations for 2018 and beyond. What are the top two or three digital trends on your radar?

Ross: Number one, I’m watching the digitization of the life sciences. I think the world’s last trillion-dollar industry was created out of computer code.

The world’s next trillion-dollar industry is going to be created out of genetic code.

We are entering chapter two of the story of genomics. The mashup of digital and life sciences, I think, is going to transform healthcare over time. That’s one of the trends that I’m looking at.

Another trend that I’m tracking is the weaponization of code. I think the significance of this ranks right up there with weaponizing fissile material.

The difference is that one requires access to the scarcest of scarce scientific skill and trans-uranium elements.

Creating cyber weapons has a lower barrier to entry.

So, while we’ve been speaking about how AI can be used broadly in our labor force and in our business processes, I do think it’s important to think about how bad actors are weaponizing zeros and ones, developing powerful malware, and using these very powerful tools as engines of conflict.