Economic Development and Technology

Tech policy expert: Data will fuel innovation

Alec Ross speaks about affected industries during West Michigan Policy Forum.

September 30, 2016
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The next age of innovation will be fueled by data, according to technology policy expert Alec Ross.

Speaking at last week’s West Michigan Policy Forum, Ross explained to the assembled crowd of West Michigan business leaders that there are 16 billion networked devices used across the world. By September 2020, he expects that number to more than double to 40 billion networked devices — from homes to cars to household appliances.

“This is going to have a big impact on pretty much every industry that makes its home in West Michigan,” said Ross, a bestselling author and the former senior advisor of innovation for Hillary Clinton during her term as Secretary of State.

As Ross meted out his view of the future, he touched on the industries he saw being most impacted by new and changing technologies in the coming years — medical, agriculture, automotive and manufacturing.

If Grand Rapids and West Michigan want to stay at the forefront of those industries, especially the medical field, Ross suggested creating a right to research agenda, which would let interested entrepreneurs and investors know the region is willing to accept and be proactive in advancing technology.

Ross used up-and-coming technologies, such as liquid biopsies, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, to highlight the advances that will transform the world in the coming years.

The increase of AI in manufacturing especially will be disruptive to the global workforce, Ross said. He cited a recent survey that said by 2021, 6 percent of all jobs in the United States will be lost because of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Ross quickly followed that statistic by noting West Michigan is “well positioned” to be one of the hubs for manufacturing those machines being sold around the world.

“You are demonstrating what is possible with AI and robotics, particularly with advancements in manufacturing,” Ross said. “We can’t control macroeconomics, but what we can do is best position ourselves to take advantage of it, and what I genuinely believe is that Western Michigan is remarkably well suited, because of your domain expertise, to be the HQ for a lot of the innovation that takes place, as AI, machine learning and robotics increasingly enters the workforce.”

Ross wrapped up his keynote address with a plea to put a focus on educating the next generation of innovators — noting children need to be taught computer coding.

“Even if you think a kid isn’t going to grow up and be a computer scientist … it is very helpful to understand the basis in which much of the future is going to be built,” he said.

Ross’ address was followed by a panel discussion that included himself, Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker, Stryker’s Katy Fink, Open System Technologies CEO Meredith Bronk and Dow Chemical’s Nancy Lamb.

During the discussion, Bronk echoed Ross’ call for more emphasis on educating students about technology.

“We have to show kids that it’s relevant to learn coding,” she said. “You should learn how to code, because that is the foundation, and we have to show kids that it is in fact relevant.”

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