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Alec Ross: Data will power industries of the future

The innovation expert opened The Gazette's Iowa Ideas conference

    Alec Ross delivers the opening night keynote during "A Celebration of Iowa" at the Iowa Ideas conference at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Sep. 20, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
    Sep 21, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    CEDAR RAPIDS — Just like land and resources powered industries before it, data will power the businesses of the future, innovation expert Alec Ross said Wednesday night.

    “The people who own the data, control the data or can harvest meaning from the data are those that are creating businesses that are meaningful for the future,” Ross said at the kickoff for The Gazette’s 2017 Iowa Ideas conference.

    Ross is an author and former senior adviser for innovation with the State Department, serving under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also is campaigning in Maryland’s gubernatorial race.

    His speech and a “Celebration of Iowa” event started the Iowa Ideas conference, a two-and-a-half-day gathering of leaders in Iowa’s business, academic and political worlds to address the questions facing Iowa’s future.

    Speaking at the Paramount Theatre, Ross described a future world that would not be a utopia or dystopia. Instead, he argued that advances in technology — from robotics to data analytics to genomics — will create both “peril and promise.”

    “What we have to do as citizens and as humans in a world of all this computer code is try to maximize the positive of it and minimize the negative of it,” he said.

    Technology such as autonomous vehicles can create safer transportation methods but also put millions out of work, Ross said. Medicine advanced by individual genetic data can help extend lives, but not necessarily make them more productive.

    To contend and work with these new technologies, today’s children and students, Ross said, will need a familiarity with computer code just as they do with math and English.

    “Computer code is the alphabet that much of the future is going to be written in,” he said.

    An interdisciplinary education — one that marries science, math or engineering skills with a liberal-arts education — also will be needed for current students to become societal leaders, he said. He pointed to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who took a lot of computer science courses at Harvard University, but majored in psychology.

    “If you don’t want to just sort of make it, but you want to shape it, I would argue that in addition to having some understanding of what’s happening scientifically or technologically, that which makes us most human grows more important,” Ross said.

    l Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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