5 questions for Alec Ross

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of The Future In Five Questions. This week I spoke with author Alec Ross, a board member at the venture firm Amplo, professor at the University of Bologna Business School and senior advisor for innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ross is also the author of a book titled “The Raging 2020s: Companies, Countries, People – and the Fight for Our Future,” in which he argues that tech innovation and modern geopolitics demand a re-imagining of the social contract. We talked about what that might look like, and why America is failing right now at projects both general (inspiring the public with bold ideas) and specific (modernizing the workforce). An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows:

What’s one underrated big idea?

The very concept of the social contract needs to be re-invoked, after a 200-year pause.

The social contract is the written and unwritten rules that keep the relationship between government, citizens and business in equilibrium. We’ve lost that equilibrium. In the same way in which industrialization led to the creation of things like the five-day workweek, pensions, child labor laws, a minimum wage and free public education, we need to re-examine the foundations of our social contract as the economy transitions from one that’s industrial to increasingly technology-rich and knowledge-based. We can have all the programs and bills running through Congress that we want, but until we look more foundationally at what the relationship between state, capital and labor is, we’re only going to make incremental progress.

What’s a technology that you think is overhyped?

Ninety-nine percent of fintech is banal to the point of meaninglessness. Making the gears turn a little bit more quickly, or a little bit more efficiently, in financial services has been something that hundreds of billions of dollars have gone into for which we’ve seen very little return. Whenever I hear the word “fintech,” my eyes roll.

What book most shaped your conception of the future?

“Plutocrats” by Chrystia Freeland. It’s a terrible title that doesn’t really describe the contents of the book, but she captured, I think beautifully, some of the economic dynamics that have been unleashed in the last 15 years.

She describes, for example, the creation of a music star; say, what created the conditions for Taylor Swift? What used to be the case, pre-recording, was that the world’s greatest opera singer would only be heard by people in the opera hall. That changed with the advent of recording, then further with digitization. What’s interesting is the way in which brands, global sources of wealth and macroeconomics have been so shaped by developments in technology, which I think Chrystia Freeland describes brilliantly.

What could the government be doing regarding technology that it isn’t?

If you want to talk about big ideas, I would blow up the Department of Labor.

It’s got a deca-billion-dollar budget, but we’re doing a horrible job in this country preparing young people to compete in tomorrow’s economy. I sit on the boards of companies all over the world, and it makes me sick to see how effective apprenticeship programs, for example, are in other countries while they are so thin in the United States. We need to think about how we develop talent in this country, and not just at universities.

What we’re especially bad at is developing talent in the skilled trades. We’re a country with a barbell-shaped economy; we have lots of knowledge workers and then we have lots of people pushing mops and folding bedsheets, but we have a thin middle. We have too few people in the skilled trades because we do a horrendous job of workforce development despite spending tens of billions of dollars a year on the Department of Labor.

What has surprised you the most this year?

Fatigue. Coming out of Covid and all the activity that came out of Covid, what I perceive right now is that the United States is an exhausted country. When people bemoan their choice of candidates in the presidential election, I think [it’s because] people are exhausted and disengaged.

We’re in this moment of great political and economic consequence and Americans just seem exhausted, and I don’t blame them for it. But 2024 should be a year where people are on the streets, politically engaged, and instead it just seems to be a sort of mild addiction on their social media where ultimately they come out of it feeling more depressed and more disengaged than ever. There’s a malaise right now in the United States that surprises me because everybody should have their blood up.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had some typically grandiloquent things to say about artificial intelligence and the future of the human race in his interview last night with Tucker Carlson.

And they were even pro-regulation! Says Putin: “When there arises an understanding that the boundless and uncontrolled development of artificial intelligence or genetics or some other modern trends, cannot be stopped, that these researches will still exist just as it was impossible to hide gunpowder from humanity… when humanity feels a threat to itself, to humanity as a whole, then, it seems to me, there will come a period to negotiate at the inter-state level on how we will regulate this.”

He also nodded to Elon Musk’s Neuralink project, saying “there’s no stopping” Musk and that “he will do as he sees fit,” and referenced the (supposed) ability of scientists to create a “superman” through genetic manipulation.

More from the state AI regulatory world: A California lawmaker introduced a bill yesterday that would impose strong regulations on the most powerful AI models, largely developed in Silicon Valley.

POLITICO’s Lara Korte reported yesterday for Pro subscribers on the bill introduced by state Sen. Scott Wiener, which would require large-scale models to pass safety tests and demonstrate that they can be shut down in case of emergency, among other safety regulations. It would also create a publicly fnded AI research center and establish legal liability for AI developers when their systems cause “severe harm.”

A spokesperson for the trade organization TechNet, which represents many of the biggest AI developers, including Meta and Google, responded to the bill with measured acceptance in a statement, saying they “look forward to reviewing the legislation and working with Senator Wiener to ensure any AI policies benefit all Californians, address any risks, and strengthen our global competitiveness.”