I’m wrapping up another book titled The Industries of the Future. Author Alec Ross explains the advances and stumbling blocks that emerge in the next ten years, and describes a way to navigate them. He is one of America’s leading experts on innovation, serving four years as Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mr. Ross is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. His book identified three future scenarios that I have added to the visual below. These scenarios are Cyberwar, Precision Agriculture, and De-Extinction.
Cyberwar is defined as actions that penetrate a nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption. A cyberwar is just as likely to be fought between a country and a company as it is between two countries. How long before a group of engineers recognizes and prevents a cyber-attack and instead of calling law enforcement, launches a counterattack against the aggressor?
The barriers to entry for cyberwar are much lower than any other domain – just another example of digital collapsing barriers to entry. As Mr. Ross suggests, any country, rogue group, or individual can develop cyber capabilities – as opposed to the years of work, billions of dollars, and scarce scientific talent and materials required to develop nuclear arms. Less than ten countries in the world have nuclear arms – but theoretically, every single country can have cyber arms. This is a 21st-century phenomenon, and the laws, norms and treaties that were developed in prior centuries do not apply – another example of the breadth of structural and institutional change that we face in this emerging future. Mr. Ross terms this “the weaponization of code” and calls it the most significant development in warfare since the development of nuclear weapons. Some nations are assessing the creation of rules for the global community, but vast distances between stakeholders give little hope for agreement.
The cybersecurity market grew from $3.5 billion in 2004, to $64 billion in 2011 and $78 billion in 2015. Mr. Ross expects the total market size to increase to $175 billion by the end of 2017. Finnish cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen believes we will see as big a shift in defense industry and military, as the technological shift seen after the Second World War. We will witness the development of cyber-ops over the next fifty to sixty years, consisting completely of virtual arms with nothing to touch.
As the global population grows, hunger grows with it. Some have placed our best hope of feeding the hungry on the combination of big data and agriculture. Precision agriculture promises to gather and evaluate real-time data on weather, water levels, nitrogen levels, air quality, and disease. In this case, precision is not just specific to a farm or an acre, but to each square inch. Sensors from the field feed data to the cloud, where it is combined with data from GPS and weather models. Algorithms then generate a precise set of instructions, guiding farm equipment by remote control based on instructions from software. The equipment is constantly processing information from satellites and soil, evolving towards the capability to sense the needs of each square inch, applying customized fertilizer based on those needs. This ability to customize offers the promise of a major reduction in pollution. Mr. Ross describes how nitrogen from fertilizer creates dead zones in waterways, and produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that rivals carbon dioxide and methane in terms of adverse impact on the climate.
Precision agriculture is a future scenario with the potential for great impact. For example, Mr. Ross describes how no other country has suffered more from a lack of farm modernization than India. High costs, scarce water, and other factors make farming very difficult. Twenty-five percent of the world’s hungry, an estimated 190 million people, live in India, and hunger is the country’s number one cause of death. As the population continues to grow rapidly, this future scenario may be the best hope for India, providing a leapfrog opportunity that helps its subsistence-level farmers achieve a high level of performance. Precision agriculture will take farming from the industrial age to a digital age.
Radical life extension – a scenario on our curve – describes research into prolonging life indefinitely. As grandiose as that seems, Mr. Ross describes a new branch of research that seeks to defy the impossible – not by merely prolonging life but by bringing the extinct back to life. De-Extinction uses genomic technology to take the DNA of dead extinct animals and create embryos that are implanted in the most genetically similar animal. The ethics discussion factors in here, as advances in science and technology put humans in a godlike role. Mr. Ross compares the human behavior that has changed the earth’s climate, with advances in genomics that could alter the world’s ecology. As he describes, species often become extinct for a reason. Reintroducing them potentially changes food chains and introduces viruses and bacteria that nature has not adapted to contain. He states that as our ability to manipulate life grows stronger, it needs to be governed by our human judgment – something that I believe we need to be discussing more.
The most compelling argument supporting the massive change that lies ahead is the sheer number of emerging paradigm shifts. This underscores a key message embedded in the curve visual above: each scenario represents a paradigm shift unto its own, and their intersections amplify the impact. Comments like: we will see as big a shift as – will be said about each of them. This multiplicative affect makes this coming period very different than past eras. So to our future scenarios curve we add three more scenarios. Later this month, I will expand the science and technology curve.