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Review of “Industries of the Future” – Alec Ross

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016

This book was published in 2016 and the author is described as one of America’s leading experts on innovation. Ross acted as senior advisor for innovation to Hillary Clinton for four years, and the book is peppered with references to this experience; at times, it seems that it is a polemic lauding the policies of the Obama administration. I found this book in equal measures both informative and irritating. There is little effective critical analysis of wider economic problems, while the author does refer to possible social problems that may arise from the developments he discusses, these references are mainly anecdotal and there is an avoidance of hard data, for example on rising inequality in the United States.

The book is divided into six sections, the first deals with robotics, the second with the importance of human gene, the third looks at blockchain and Fintech, the fourth considers cyber security, the fifth looks at the role of data as the raw material of the information age, and finally the author considers the impact of new technology on a global level. Each of these sections contains useful information, written in an accessible style, using anecdotes, and notes of the author’s discussions with leading figures in information technology industry. Because of the vast scope of his subject this can never be more than an introduction, that is not to condemn it, we need such introductions, technology is developing ever faster rates, and it is important that we consider where it is likely to go over the next few years.

The author makes a case that technical innovation is more likely to occur in societies which permit the free expression and development of ideas, he also makes the case for the continuing domination of many technical areas by the United States, arguing that the knowledge existing in places like Silicon Valley, gives the United States an immense advantage. There is however, no consideration in changes in American policy, restricting immigration, and the relative decline, of the American education system, which are likely to undermine the advantages that the United States previously enjoyed. In no way, can this book be described as critical, one feels that everything will turn out perfectly if only we adopt the technical developments he writes about with ease and enthusiasm. There is no suggestion that wider economic developments, threats to globalisation, and climate change, may change the course of developments which he outlines. In particular, I saw no criticism of any of the policies of the Obama administration, a view which appears to overlook the very real problems that United States now faces. In the same way, I found no reference to the endemic corruption within the Chinese economy, which has insured that it is fundamentally unbalanced, and that far too many of the country’s resources have been squandered supporting unprofitable state enterprises, and creating infrastructure which will never repay the cost of its construction. Ross does, however, make it clear that the Chinese state has been engaged in the mass theft of intellectual property from other countries.

I believe, that this book is worth reading, there is much useful information within it, however, do not believe that it is a wholly accurate depiction of the world we are now entering as we approach the third decade of the 21st-century. But as I said at the beginning, this book is as irritating as it is informative, and the reader needs to be aware of its flaws, and not allow the author’s enthusiasm for technology, or Hillary Clinton, to overwhelm the critical faculty.

© Andrew Palmer, 2017

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