An interview with Amy Webb
Amy Webb is an American futurist, author and founder of the Future Today Institute. She is well known for her annual Tech Trends Report and her book The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream. Her upcoming book, The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity, will be published on March 5, 2019 and is available now for pre-order.
It was in eighth grade that Amy went on her school's Future Problem Solvers of America's team. At the same time, she was also a competitive debater. Now she recognises that both activities required the tools of strategic foresight, though she didn't know that at the time, of course. Later whilst working as a foreign correspondent in China and Japan, a colleague introduced her to Future Shock by Alvin Toffler and it seemingly changed her path in life:
"Once I realised that strategic foresight was a professional field, I read everything I could get my hands on: the quantitative modes created by Olaf Helmer and Nicholas Rescher, the scenario planning techniques developed by Pierre Wack and Peter Schwartz, the real-world application of foresight by Yujiro Hayashi and folks at RAND...."
There are different specialities in foresight and Amy counts herself as a quantitative futurist, primarily focussing on the impact of technology on the economy, geopolitics and business. She spends much of her time researching weak signals and building models to map emerging trends and to create data-driven scenarios on behalf of large companies and government agencies. And she is passing on what she has learnt, to another generation of budding futurists:
"A few years ago, I open-sourced my methodology and I continue to make the Future Today Institute’s research freely available to the public. We’re standing at the event horizon for a number of groundbreaking technologies–artificial intelligence, genomic editing, cryptocurrency platforms, autonomous vehicles, ultra-fast computer systems–and I’m extremely concerned that too few people are thinking through the next-order impacts they will bring. Technology is evolving faster than our government’s ability to legislate, but that’s only the beginning. We're now seeing bias within the systems that will ultimately make decisions on behalf of humans. Collectively, we’ve fetishized the future, as if we have no agency in what comes next. I believe that every single one of us has the ability to create our preferred futures. In 2016, I published my foresight methodology in The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream. I wrote Signals to help others listen for weak signals, spot trends early, and learn how to create and test scenarios. It's up to humanity to confront what’s on the horizon and be smarter about the decisions we’re making in the present."
But what about that humanity, are we seeing all of humanity participating in futures thinking or just one or two narrow demographics?
"I will admit that at the beginning of my transition from journalism to future work, it was difficult to find women practicing in the field. I have an unusual background with skills in data science, computer science, economics, political science, storytelling and reporting. In each of those areas there are women to look up to: Margaret Atwood, Grace Hopper, Anita Borg, Jane Miller, Bronwyn Hughes Hall and Carmen M. Reinhart."
And does that gender bias still exist?
"I'm continually surprised that gender bias continues to exist, because the math doesn't work out in favour of exclusion. If you have 100 potential candidates and you're primarily looking at gender because of unacknowledged bias, you're needlessly reducing the talent pool. Over time, this short-changes your organisations's future."
I asked Amy if there was another female futurist she would like to call out for being a particular inspiration to her or someone to encourage other futurists?
"There are plenty! Fiona Baby, Amber Case, Genevieve Bell, Hanna-Kaisa Aalto, Wendy Shultz - I could go on!"
The Future Today Institute is an impressive organisation and has been going for around fifteen years now. Working primarily with executive leadership and managers within Fortune 500 companies and federal government, Amy and her team cover a lot of futures ground, intentionally cross fertilising strategies from across different sectors. For example one of their clients is a petroleum company and the work they are doing there is informed by what they have done with a large tech company on its longer-term artificial intelligence strategy.
Amy believes the future is interconnected, so what does she see are the interconnected issues we should be anxious, excited and optimistic about in the near future?
"Climate change, recognition technologies, bias-encoded into machines that learn, the lack of funding within public health and education and the ways in which China is leveraging artificial intelligence to shift the balance of geopolitical power. It concerns me greatly that most governments around the world are not engaged in long-term thinking and that we're in the midst of deeply partisan divides.
I'm most exited by smart glasses, autonomous vehicles, adaptive learning technologies (especially if deployed in lower-performing schools) and I'm most optimistic about the simple fact that the future hasn't happened yet. We still have a chance to build our preferred futures. But only if we get started on making hard decisions right now, in the present."
Amen to that.
You can follow Amy on twitter at @amywebb