We continue with our Vergecast remote interview series during the COVID-19 pandemic and this week, Verge Editor-in-chief Nilay Patel sits down on Skype with Amy Webb, the founder and CEO of The Future Today Institute.
Amy is also a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and recently released a book called The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Distort Humanity.
The Future Today Institute recently published the Tech Trends Report 2020, which is a quantitative view of the major trends that will dominate the future. Nilay and Amy discuss the different avenues the report takes to predict that with the current state of technology, there is no future in which we will not be scored.
Amy and Nilay also discuss whether we could have predicted the magnitude of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, and how it is now possible to predict a solution and a timeline for that solution.
Below is a fragment of the conversation edited for clarity.
Nilay Patel: We are in the middle of a pandemic. It is here, it is happening. It feels like no one knows what will happen next, or is this something you can model or understand?
Amy Webb: So I don’t want to get too nerdy here, but if you have a discrete set of data, like Johns Hopkins [University] has discrete datasets that now go back to December as we’ve seen corona outbreaks in a number of areas around the world that have lasted a little longer than what we see in the US. So given what we know is true, and the data they have access to, and any other variables they would have some control over – like whether we take aggressive measures in the United States or not, we have some way a whole bunch of tests, stuff like that. If you look at historical data trends and then all the things we control, you can predict a handful of plausible outcomes that tell us a little more about how many people can get sick at what rate and what the mortality might be like.
But most of the time we’re talking about areas of life that we don’t have full control over. There is no way to have complete control because too many variables are involved. And at that point the math doesn’t work. You can have the most powerful computers in the world, but the calculations don’t work. You need a continuous data stream that are really comprehensive and evolutionary algorithms to understand everything. So we are very concerned about the corona virus, about oil prices.
I compare this to that feeling of out of control, if you’ve ever driven on a slippery road. When you’re driving and you hit an icy place, most people, their instinct is to hit the brakes. And why do we brake? Because slamming the brakes makes us feel like we’re back in control. And the reason we feel we are in control is because we think we know what the future will be. If we step on the brake, the car stops, everything will be fine.
That would work if you were in charge of each variable at the time, but it isn’t. So stepping on the brakes and really, really, really hoping that things don’t change from where they are now or that they will be the way they were is a great way to set yourself up, not just for a crash – because you’re so really lose control of a car – but it’s also a good way to disappoint yourself. And things like that – if we extrapolate that to society – have reflective effects. So what I’m observing now is kind of a feverish corporate fear. I see government concerns and companies, like people, have limbic systems.
What do you mean by a limbic system?
So it is the fighting or flight portion of our body that evolution gave us millennia ago so we weren’t eaten by tigers or anything. And we hear people talk a lot about their kind of crushing fear, and I understand that.
I’ll be the first person to tell you if you gave me all the data in the world and all the computers in the world, right now I can’t tell you what things will look like in three months. And that’s fine, because that tells us that we still have an agency. Futurists are trained to think about plausible results, not so that we can accurately predict what the future holds, because that is not our goal at the moment. Our goal is not predictions. It is prepared for what comes next.
And that is good news. The good news is if you are willing to lean in uncertainty and accept that you cannot control everything, but you are not powerless in what comes next. If you’re willing to adopt – and anyone can do it, it doesn’t cost any money. It’s just a different perspective. If you are willing to think more like a futurist, that is, confront your beloved beliefs, lean into uncertainty and be agile with how you think, you will get through this. The challenge is that I see the kind of business anxiety that once you are in a cycle of that is hard to stop. Companies are starting to make weird decisions or they are braking. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of them in the past few weeks. This is both an opportunity to identify risks and to think about what effective measures we could take to help not only everyone else but our profit. There is a lot of opportunity here.
I said this to you before: I’m politically independent, but I’m a pragmatist, and my biggest fear right now is that the Trump administration is a nuist. They are not futurists. They only think about what’s good for them right now. They are absolutely unwilling to think long-term and absolutely unwilling to make short-term sacrifices. In the past, that has resulted in entertaining tweet storms, which have led to irritation. People will die this time.
And we must be willing to face the fact now that, without being alarming, without being emotional, we just have to be willing to face alternative futures. We must be ready to accept uncertainty and think the unthinkable at this time. And now that means accepting the possibility that 2 million Americans could die by the end of the summer. And if that is a plausible future state, how do we work backwards to get a better result? In New York, things are shut down for a few weeks. In some ways, that will help flatten the curve, as people say now. But that’s a short-term solution that doesn’t solve a longer-term problem. And the real problem here is a psychological one because we’re coming to the end of those two weeks and I think people will feel that the virus must be gone and it won’t be.
So we now – individually, collectively – have the opportunity to map out alternative futures. Not all of them need to be dystopian. There are many really great things that can happen because of this. For example, we are starting to see massive investments in synthetic biology and new ways to use AI as a way to accelerate scientific discoveries. Which is amazing, because in the end we could end up with precision medications, we could end up with synthetic farming as a way to mitigate climate change. On the other hand, there will be some good things. And now it is time to think about “where is the risk, where is the opportunity and how can we start modeling alternative futures?”