Technology is rapidly changing every sector of the economy. President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t seem to know it. But if you lack a sense of the role of tech, you misunderstand the levers of progress. As a leader, you will be unable to have lasting positive impact. You will be operating only for the short-term. This is true for manufacturing, immigration, trade, transportation, health care, education, the conduct of warfare, the nature of work, and many other spheres. Tech-driven change will wash over your work and alter it, regardless of your intentions.
The president-elect continues to act, for example, as if it’s impossible to know that the Russians meddled with the U.S. news media and with our electoral process. But in fact computer forensics is a sophisticated science, capable of detecting the unique signature of an intruder, just as a detective can see clues at a physical crime scene. The challenges of fighting back against cyber-attacks and cyber-warfare are vast and growing. But they are real, they are continuing, and when an attack occurs it’s possible to know that it’s not a 400-pound guy sitting on a bed somewhere. To properly fight this new kind of war, we have to understand how it is waged and what our weapons are, including detection. Unless Trump, as president, becomes more open to how tech works, he will be an ineffective commander-in-chief.
Every leader must be, to some significant degree, a technologist. It’s something we at Techonomy have been saying for seven years. You don’t need to be an engineer, but you need to accept and study the nature of tech’s impact.
Trump’s approach to the decline of manufacturing employment in the U.S. has a similar flaw. He pressures companies to not ship jobs overseas and to bring factories back home. But as many as 88% of U.S. manufacturing jobs lost in recent decades have disappeared because of automation and robotics, according to a study by Ball State University, and only about 13% because of trade and factory flight. Not to understand that is not to know how to address the problem. One Japanese insurance company is already reportedly replacing insurance adjusters with artificial intelligence, so the problem is clearly extending identifiably beyond manufacturing. Technology increases efficiencies, and will continue to do so. The debate about what that means for jobs is one we desperately need to have, but we are not having it.
Similarly, software is changing transportation and logistics via self-driving technologies and AI. Progress in photovoltaics, wind power and the Internet of Things is altering our energy grid. (And the technology of fracking to extract gas has undermined the economics of mining and burning coal.) Digital and genomic technology is transforming healthcare and medicine. Traditional food production could yield to the improving economics of digitized indoor agriculture. Such a list could go on endlessly.
Climate change driven by a growing concentration of gasses in the atmosphere has been shown by innumerable technologized measurements to be real and continuing. And technology, applied intelligently, can slow or even reverse it.
There are people near Trump who can serve as a counter-weight to, or possibly change, his ignorance or disregard of these facts. Investor Peter Thiel has a clear and oft-stated understanding of tech-driven progress and how to accelerate it. So does Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk, recently appointed to Trump’s economic advisory group alongside IBM CEO Ginny Rometty. We can hope they will speak forcefully and compellingly about how tech can be applied for economic growth and societal benefit.
But it simply won’t work to try to grow the American economy and create millions of new jobs, or even to reduce inequality, without the long-term view that comes from understanding how tech inexorably continues to transform everything. Even if innovation were to completely stop here in its greatest home, the United States, it will continue elsewhere, and affect how companies, industries, economies and societies operate. Not to accept that is to think and operate short-term. And then the waves of long-term transformation will inevitably wash over us all anyway.
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