Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist and founder of the strategic foresight firm Future Today Institute, thinks the world can, indeed, get worse.
In her most recent book Ã¢ÂÂ2020 Tech Trend Report: Strategic Trends that Will Influence Business, Government, Education, Media and Society in the Coming Year,Ã¢ÂÂ Webb examines the companies Ã¢ÂÂ and the people who run them Ã¢ÂÂ that will make the future either a utopia or a new hell.
WebbÃ¢ÂÂs major idea centers around how the G-MAFIA (an invective and acronym of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Apple) and its Chinese counterpart in BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) are becoming increasingly interwoven in our lives.
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Digital innovations Ã¢ÂÂ from artificial intelligence to payments architectures Ã¢ÂÂ are not in themselves dangerous. But decisions made today to serve political or shareholder interests, rather than the public good, could destabilize our shared future.
This post is part of CoinDeskÃ¢ÂÂs Ã¢ÂÂInternet 2030Ã¢ÂÂ series.
SheÃ¢ÂÂs not the only one who sees a dystopian AI arising from the ether, nor the only person to think the G-MAFIA and BAT exert outsized influence over society and politics. However, despite technological revolts and regulatory hamstringing, she admits these companies are not going anywhere.
CoinDesk corresponded with Webb over email. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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What do you suppose will happen to the Ã¢ÂÂG-MAFIAÃ¢ÂÂ in a decade? Will they continue to consolidate power and if so, what happens to the rest of the internet?ÃÂ
The G-MAFIA will continue to consolidate power. Even if antitrust measures pass in the United States, and thatÃ¢ÂÂs a big if, itÃ¢ÂÂs unlikely the companies will accept the findings of the investigations and agree to be broken apart.ÃÂ
So the question is really about how do the G-MAFIA evolve? Amazon, Google and Apple are making bold, decisive moves into health care. From AmazonÃ¢ÂÂs Halo wristband to Apple Fitness+ to GoogleÃ¢ÂÂs acquisition of Fitbit, big tech players are working now to collect and analyze our health data.ÃÂ
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But those are just devices you wear on your wrist Ã¢ÂÂ what about the biometric detection algorithms that mine, refine and optimize us? Or the move into electronic health data and records? And insurance in the case of Amazon, and outpatient care in the case of AppleÃ¢ÂÂs employee clinics?ÃÂ
If we zoom out, big tech getting into health care is just one of many areas where weÃ¢ÂÂre seeing disruptive change happening at a relatively fast clip. Microsoft is building the future of smart agriculture. Facebook is, as you know very well, working on the future of cryptos and DLTs. IBM is always ignored, but itÃ¢ÂÂs making important strides in open enterprise architecture for AI.ÃÂ
TheyÃ¢ÂÂre all vying for cloudshare. Power will be consolidated in a way that will be difficult to see if youÃ¢ÂÂre not intentionally gathering data and working to connect dots across products, services and industries. They are amassing more power and influence than our governments.
What might the cultural or political effects be of an ever-greater consolidated and extractive web?ÃÂ
We talk about privacy a lot, and journalists certainly write a lot of stories about data sharing, privacy and consolidation within the tech sector. But when it comes to everyday consumers and business leaders, it just doesnÃ¢ÂÂt seem like these are priority issues. WeÃ¢ÂÂll feel the effects when there is litigation, new policy or sweeping policy enacted.
You write about the tech giants of America and China as competitive and cooperative forces. What do you expect will happen to the Ã¢ÂÂsplinternetÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ will the divide between east and west grow wider?ÃÂ
Unfortunately, with ChinaÃ¢ÂÂs provocative moves to achieve cyber sovereignty, weÃ¢ÂÂre going to see a deeper splinternet.ÃÂ
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There are greater forces at play here. ChinaÃ¢ÂÂs Belt and Road Initiative, which swaps infrastructure development in emerging markets for debt, could lead to BRI countries being coerced into using the Chinese internet rather than the existing internet, which to be fair relies on data transfer for monetization.ÃÂ
Projects like Tim Berners-LeeÃ¢ÂÂs Solid are an interesting example of emerging decentralized approaches to the web, applications and data use. Similarly, I think weÃ¢ÂÂll see more distributed networks like Golem and Morpheus.ÃÂ
But it will take a long time for Web 3.0 initiatives to move from the fringes to the mainstream.
Do you see a genuine way out through distributed technologies that may give people control over their own data?ÃÂ
I worry about people who never update their passwords Ã¢ÂÂ should we entrust them to manage sensitive data? There are complex questions about data hygiene, data governance, compliance, risk. Distributed tech solutions solve some of our problems, but not all.
Few people have an understanding of how data are collected, by whom, for what purpose. There are lots of organizations proposing some kind of Ã¢ÂÂownershipÃ¢ÂÂ model, where we individually would Ã¢ÂÂownÃ¢ÂÂ our data. What does that mean?ÃÂ
I want consumers to be much better aware of what data they are generating Ã¢ÂÂ that includes the digital emissions theyÃ¢ÂÂre releasing without realizing it. Think of all the metadata being generated by our connected devices, the ambient sounds in our homes and offices, our movements and gestures. All of those digital emissions, plus the PIIs collected now by contract tracing apps and biometric scanning systems Ã¢ÂÂ I mean, weÃ¢ÂÂre swimming in data.ÃÂ
How can we become better at predicting the future?
As a futurist IÃ¢ÂÂll be the first person to tell you that I canÃ¢ÂÂt predict the future. The math doesnÃ¢ÂÂt work out. If IÃ¢ÂÂm dealing with a limited quantity of variables, then yes, I might be able to make a prediction. The reason weÃ¢ÂÂre continually surprised is because weÃ¢ÂÂre only thinking tactically about what matters right now, or weÃ¢ÂÂre thinking fancifully about the deeper future. The hard work is finding signals in the present and modeling their next-order impacts using data and rigorous frameworks. Predictions are brittle. The goal of any good futurist is preparation.ÃÂ
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The question really is: How can we reduce uncertainty? We should all try to get better at confronting cherished beliefs and accepting chaos and chance as drivers of change. Ultimately, strategic foresight isnÃ¢ÂÂt about making predictions. ItÃ¢ÂÂs about creating a state of readiness and knowing when to act. This includes being ready for a sudden chaotic event, like a natural disaster or a global pandemic. The best strategic foresight work results in insights, internal alignment, and faster, data-driven decision-making. I like to use a flywheel analogy. With some pushing and persistent effort, the effect is a reduction in surprise and uncertainty.
I do not believe in Ã¢ÂÂBlack SwanÃ¢ÂÂ events, which are unpredictable events that come as a total surprise and have severe consequences. Nothing is truly instantaneous. When people talk about the pandemic as a Ã¢ÂÂBlack SwanÃ¢ÂÂ event, they are wrong. The virus emerged, governments made poor choices, and now weÃ¢ÂÂre dealing with the aftermath. Plenty of models predicted weÃ¢ÂÂd be in this situation back in December if good, disciplined choices were not made.ÃÂ
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.