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From Robo-Advisors to Brain Chips: The Future of AI

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The line between real world and sci-fi is beginning to look increasingly blurry. That’s the unmistakable takeaway after talking with Amy Webb, New York University professor of strategic foresight and founder-CEO of The Future Today Institute.

But don’t think crystal ball. Think complex quantitative forecasting models. That’s what Webb, a quant futurist, relies on to research and track emerging technologies as they progress to the mainstream.

In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, the management consultant discussed self-assembling robots, embeddable brain devices and human-machine interfacing, among other wonders on the way. Within a closer time frame, she foresees more automation in financial services that could make face-to-face advisor-client contact dispensable.

Her institute’s “2018 Emerging Tech Trends Report” identifies a whopping 225 technology advances that will disrupt business, government, education and consumers’ everyday lives.

Webb, 44, is on the globally ranked Thinkers50 Radar list of “the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led.” She has advised 3-star generals, the U.S. federal government, Fortune 100 companies and investment funds. She is also a script consultant for films and TV shows about tech and the future.

In the interview, she discussed artificial intelligence, her principal focus. It is the third phase of computing and one that will bring both risk and opportunity, she argues.

Futurism is an academic discipline that goes back more than a century, according to Webb. Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, “Future Shock,” came along in the middle of that period after a number of futurist models had been published.

As for Webb’s six-step quant model, data-driven and front-loaded, it looks first for weak signals, then identifies trends and calculates time frames.

Her 2018 Trends report names 10 on-the-fringe weak signals, including unhackable computers, 4D and 5D printing, brain-to-vehicle interfaces and brain-to-internet interfaces.

A Newsweek and Wall Street Journal writer early in her career, by 2006 she had founded Webbmedia Group, which developed into The Future Today Institute forecasting firm. She is based in Baltimore and New York City.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed the futurist, on the phone from Baltimore. Author of bestseller “The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream” (Public Affairs/Hachette 2016), Webb this summer completed the manuscript of her next book, “The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans & Their Thinking Machines Will Change Humanity.” It is, yes, about artificial intelligence and due for early 2019 publication.

On Aug. 9, she tweeted the good news: “OK, so this is why I’ve been incommunicado for so long … I’ve written a new book!”

Here are excerpts from our interview:

THINKADVISOR: Why is connecting trends essential when looking at technology?

AMY WEBB: It’s really important for organizations to consider how things relate — that they look for constellations rather than individual stars and the stories they tell about what’s coming. Industries tend to fixate on a single technology or on their own industry and lose sight of everything else that’s changing around them. A good example is BlackBerry, where a lot of what was adjacent to the development of the [cell] phone got missed.

Your Emerging Tech Report says there’ll be more consolidation. What’s an example?

You have to look at the whole pattern. There have been moments of intense consolidation as a technology, a field or an industry matures. But then things often go in the opposite direction for a time. Twenty years ago, we carried around many different devices — laptops, digital cameras, mobile phones. Now we have a single  phone that has the capabilities of all those, and more computing power.  But we’re seeing things going in the other direction again — with ear buds, wristbands and a lot of different [electronics] we’re carrying. However, at some point things will shift again. So there’s consolidation but then decoupling or new entrants that cause more diversity within an area.

Which emerging technology will disrupt business the most?

Winnowing that down to just one technology assumes that every business is the same or that we won’t have any change going forward. We’re no longer in a place where we can pick even the Top 3 or Top 5 technologies — and go “Beep!” You’ve got to look at everything simultaneously. It’s a different way of thinking.

What are the most important technologies of the future that financial advisors and other investment professionals should know about?

Significant changes are coming with regard to verification and authentication — making some of the processes a little easier and with more secure transactions and perhaps more automation so that people don’t have to meet with their financial advisory person.

What else for the financial arena?

Quite a bit of other productivity tools, like enhancements to voice recognition and automation tools that are used to find insights in structured data that will augment and help professionals that work in the space.

Any other big tech changes in finance?

Some will probably affect how money moves and how people spend their money, which would tie into things like mixed reality [real and virtual worlds interacting]. But those have a longer time horizon.

For example?

Smart glasses will someday allow us to recognize objects in the real world that link to parts of our bank account. If, say, we’ve decided to have $500 in discretionary spending every month and see a pair of shoes we like, we can use the glasses to automatically buy them.

Your report notes that MagicLeap is one company that’s working on smart glasses. Here’s another area: 3D printing. It’s often in the news. What’s in store? The report cites companies that bear watching include Apis Cor, Arc Group, HP, Kodak and Organovo.

3D printing is one of those areas of technology that’s probably disappointed a lot of people who assumed that by now we’d be 3D printing everything from our shoes to our dinners.

Why aren’t we?

3D printing has always had the most use in industrial cases and certain professions. For instance, it’s incredibly useful to architects, urban planners and designers for printing out models and also for prototyping. But we’re still not quite there when it comes to printing organic materials.

Such as what?

Organoids [3D miniaturized models of organs] or meats that we can consume. The research has been done; the question is how to scale. People tend to get excited when we see a new technology that shows promise or something that we can even buy an early version of. The expectation is that the technology will rapidly advance. But we need to exercise patience.

Cryptocurrency is fairly controversial. How will that develop? Your report says some companies to look at concerning blockchain include IBM, Solidity and UBS.

It’s good to decouple cryptocurrencies from blockchain. There are lots of cryptocurrencies. It’s a different way to spend money. It’s a solution for the unbanked. There are various ways of thinking about how we’ll perform transactions. We’re at early phase in, for example, the creation of “tokens” — [similar to] earning credits that can be spent. Whether we wind up with Bitcoin vs. Ethereum is less important at this point. What’s more important is the underlying infrastructure.

Your report says that in “targeting the underbanked,” companies to keep an eye on include Capital One, Walmart and Wells Fargo. Big picture: The report states we’re rapidly moving toward “the next iteration of computers.” What is it?

The first one, tabulation, started in the late 1800s. The second was programmable systems, predominantly with mainframes and laptops, and the one we’re in now. The next one is artificial intelligence (AI): systems capable of making prominent decisions that aren’t about singular processes. They work with each other to automate lots of different things.

People are worried that AI will negatively impact society. What do you see?

As with every technology, there’s always risk and opportunity. When people talk about AI, [most] focus on what they [perceive] as people losing their jobs. There’s a potential for AI to be weaponized; and, obviously, it will eliminate some jobs. However, there are also tons of economic opportunities that it creates.

Like what?

We’re going to need lots of new jobs that have never existed before. It can be hard to see that because we don’t have descriptions for them in the present and because popular culture has left pretty good indelible images of scary robots.

What sorts of new jobs?

In collaborative robotics and in telemedicine and health care, we’re going to need a lot more MDs who are trained as roboticists or have a background in engineering. And we’ll probably need people trained in agriculture as well as in data because more and more of the agricultural landscape is closely intertwined with big data and machine learning.

Self-assembling robots, discussed in your report, sound like science fiction.

A lot of it is experimental work that’s been done at MIT and the University of Arizona. Robots in the way we think of them — [configured with] hard containers — isn’t entirely apt here. We’re talking about organic materials to be programmed to perform specific functions. For example, inside our bodies they can be part of a precision medicine protocol — a way to manage our health outside the scope of what traditional pharmaceuticals look like. This is all very, very early in the process.

People have talked about the concept of implanting brain chips for decades now. Any progress?

The way we thought about brain implants previously is perhaps more barbaric than the work that’s actually been done. There’s a ton of experimentation at Duke University and the University of Washington. The idea that we may embed things or inject devices for the purposes of augmenting our abilities or at some point sharing our abilities with other people is very much within the realm of possibility in my lifetime.

Your report discusses the emerging trend of human-machine interfacing to transmit thoughts to others. Please explain.

Duke and the University of Washington are working on that. But that doesn’t mean tomorrow we’re going to be able to connect our brains to one another. A lot of the work is being done for stroke victims whose brains have lost their connectivity.

How would they interface with a machine?

The idea is to transmit the cognitive processes that remind a muscle to move. This [research] is for therapeutic use to help people — who, for instance, have suffered strokes or temporary paralysis — to walk again. In the past decade, great strides have been made in the research, but we’re still a ways off.

What’s in the future when it comes to technology used for human reproduction?

One of the areas that has a lot of speculation and opportunity — but also risk — is the technique of [somatic] genome editing. That would allow us to theoretically [correct genes] to make sure we’re not passing down heritable disease that are potentially dangerous. Cystic fibrosis is one that’s being researched a lot — ways to edit that disease out of the population without causing bad, unintended consequences.

What progress has been made in approved technologies for reproduction?

In the United States, there are tests [women] can take early in pregnancy to determine the overall health of the embryo as it grows, which forces us to make choices. The promise of genome editing is that we would know in advance different possibilities for risk and be able to mitigate those. There’s always an opportunity to repurpose technology for good and bad. The challenge is for everybody to keep some perspective.

What about cloning? Many people have ethical or religious objections to the process.

When [in 1996], Dolly the sheep [the first cloned mammal] was announced, the entire world freaked out. Churches officially condemned the work. President Clinton had a press conference trying to calm everybody down. At the end of the day, we didn’t wind up with demonic sheep roaming the earth or designer babies. We wound up with better medicine and better, safer ways to help women conceive.

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