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.
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.