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How to Think Like a Futurist

Some technological trends fizzle out while others overturn everything. Author Amy Webb explains how she discerns which ones will go in which direction.
December 28, 2016

Futurist and business consultant Amy Webb says that by asking the right questions, just about anyone can do what she does: separate real trends from hype and glean the paths that technologies will take. In her recently released book, The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, Webb shares some of her methods for analyzing the impact of innovations. She spoke to MIT Technology Review’s executive editor, Brian Bergstein, in an interview that Insider Premium subscribers can listen to here. Highlights condensed for clarity follow.

Why did you write this book? People pay you and your consulting firm for insights into the future. Aren’t you giving away some secrets?

My goal is to democratize the skills of a futurist, so that more and more people have the ability to see around corners. I just think it’s so important. Because I’m concerned about the direction that we’re headed in.

I’m not concerned in the conventional way; I’m not one of those people who believes that artificially intelligent robots are going to take all our jobs and destroy humanity. The concern that I have is that technology is becoming more and more fantastical and politicized. And in the process, we fetishize the future rather than [having] the more boring conversations that are just as important.

What do you mean when you say we fetishize the future?

I’ve gone back and looked at spikes in innovation. There’s a cycle that follows each one of those innovation spikes. If you track all the way back to the invention of the light bulb, you have this sudden introduction in newspapers and people get very excited. The story goes in a weird direction from there. That was the birth of modern science fiction. There’s this sudden interest in what is fantastical versus what is realistic. We’ve seen that happen with the introduction of [artificial] light, with cars, with the Internet. Now as we stand on the precipice of AI, the same thing’s happening again. I see the word “futurist” in many more Twitter bios than I ever have before. We’re all really excited about it, but I don’t see very many people working in a diligent, methodical way on thinking through the implications. 

Let’s talk about how you sort through the implications of technologies. In your book you say you look at trends in seemingly unrelated fields that could converge.

I was just at IBM’s T.J. Watson Center, where all the research scientists are based, talking to them about artificial intelligence. They live, breathe, eat, sleep AI. One of the challenges with working in such a rarified field is that at some point, in order to do your job well, you have to block out all of the distraction and noise from other spaces. You sort of acclimate yourself to not paying attention to how the work that you’re doing may impact other fields. You’re just trying to get the next part of your experiment or the next part of your research pushed forward. Therefore, you don’t want to waste any time thinking about how this line of code or this outcome may impact health or geopolitics or whatever it might be. 

[But] it is that kind of thinking that’s so imperative because in the absence of [it], you wind up with what we saw in March when Microsoft took a research project that it had from China, which was a chatbot, introduced that same chatbot here in the United States on Twitter, and within 24 hours it went on a racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic rampage. That was Tay.AI.

Amy Webb

It’s not like no one could’ve seen that coming. 

Yes. They should’ve seen that coming.

To find trends that might converge, you say you look for signals on the fringe, beyond the usual things that get covered in the technology press. Fair enough, but how can all of us look on the fringes?

It’s not like there’s a singular source where you would go to find the unusual suspects at the fringe. Instead, it’s a series of guiding questions. Pick a topic and then say, “Okay. Who do I know of that’s been working directly and indirectly in this space?” Maybe try to figure out, “Well, who’s funding this work? Who’s encouraging experimentation?” I always find it fascinating to go on Iarpa’s website. They publicly post their RFPs. That’ll give you a window into the kinds of things that they’re thinking about. “Who might be directly impacted if this technology succeeds one way or the other? Who could be incentivized to work against any change? Because they stand to gain something, they stand to lose something, who might see this technology as just the starting-off point for something else?” Start asking those questions.

One of the chapters in the book goes through bio-hackers. There are these bio-hacking communities all over the place, and they’re doing all kinds of experimentation, whether that’s injecting RFID tags under their skin or any other number of things. A lot of people would look at those folks and laugh at them or think they’re ridiculous, but again we’re looking through the lens of our own present reality without thinking about, “Where are we headed?”

What’s one of your favorite predictions right now?

I think some of my favorite things that are on the horizon are interesting, promising, and also scary. One of them is smart dust. You’ve actually covered this in Tech Review. Smart dust are these tiny computers that are no bigger than a grain of salt or a speck of dust. Theoretically you could, in your hand at any given time, hold 5,000 sensors. Let’s say that you’re holding this handful of dust and you blew it into the wind. We are going to soon be in an era when it’s going to be really difficult to tell if you as a person have been hacked in some way, which is breathtaking and terrifying and fantastically interesting.

While reading your book, I was thinking of Future Shock by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, published in 1970. The book argued that the modern world stresses and disorients people by creating more change than we can handle in a short period of time. Is that right?  

Unfortunately, I think that’s still very true in the year 2016. My goal with the book and my goal in general is to break that cycle of continual surprise and shock.

If there’s a way to make the future a little less exciting and a little bit more boring, that’s good for everybody because that means that we’re not continually shocked by new ideas, that we’re not continually discounting people on the fringe.

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