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We need to start modeling alternative futures

An interview with quantitative futurist Amy Webb

The Future Today Institute

We’re continuing our Vergecast interview series remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and this week, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel sits down via 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 came out with a book called The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity.

The Future Today Institute recently published the 2020 Tech Trends Report, which is a quantitative look at the big trends that will dominate the future. Nilay and Amy discuss the different paths the report takes on predicting that, with the state of technology use today, there’s no future in which we are not being scored.

Amy and Nilay also discuss whether we could have predicted the scale of the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, as well as how possible it is to predict a solution and a timeline for that solution right now.

Below is an excerpt of the conversation edited for clarity.

Nilay Patel: We’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s here, it’s happening. It feels like no one knows what’s going to happen next, or is this something that you’re able to 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 now going back to December because we’ve seen corona outbreaks in a couple of areas around the world that have lasted a little longer than what we’re seeing in the US. So given what we know to be true, and the data that they have access to, and all of the other variables over which they would have some kind of control — like whether or not we take aggressive measures in the United States today, whether or not we somehow have a whole bunch of tests, things like that. If you look at historic data trends and then all the stuff that over which we have control, you could predict a handful of plausible outcomes that tell us a little bit more about how many people could get sick at what rate and what the mortality could look like.

But most of the time, we’re talking about areas of life over which we don’t have complete control. There’s no way to have total control because there’s too many variables at play. And at that point, the math doesn’t work. You can have the most powerful computers in the world, but the computations don’t work out. You would need a continual stream of data that’s really comprehensive and evolutionary algorithms in order to make sense of it all. So we’re feeling huge amounts of anxiety about coronavirus, about the oil prices tanking.

I liken this to that sense of out of controlness, if you’ve ever driven on a slippery road. If you’re driving and you hit an icy patch, most people, their instinct is to slam on the brakes. And why do we slam on the brakes? Because the act of slamming on the brakes makes us feel like we have control again. And the reason we feel like we have control is because we think we know what the future is going to be. If we slam on the brakes, the car will stop, we will be fine.

That would work if you were in charge of every single variable at that moment in time, but you’re not. So slamming on the brakes and really, really, really hoping things don’t change from where they are right now or that they’re going to be like they used to be is a really great way to set yourself up not only for a crash — because that’s how you really lose control of a car — but it’s also a good way to set yourself up for disappointment. And that kind of thing has — when we extrapolate that to society — has reverberating effects. So right now what I’m observing is sort of a feverish corporate anxiety. I’m seeing governmental anxiety, and companies, just like people, have limbic systems.

What do you mean by a limbic system?

So it’s the fight or flight part of our bodies that evolution bestowed upon us millennia ago so that we didn’t get eaten by tigers or whatever. And we’re hearing people talk a lot about their sort of crushing anxiety, and I get that.

I’m going to be the first person to tell you if you gave me all the data in the world and all the computers in the world, at this moment in time I cannot tell you what things are going to look like in three months. And that’s fine because that tells us we still have some agency. Futurists are trained to think through plausible outcomes, not so that we can accurately predict what’s next, because that’s not our goal right now. Our goal is not predictions. It’s being prepared for what comes next.

And that’s good news. The good news is if you are willing to lean into uncertainty and to accept the fact that you can’t control everything, but also you are not helpless in whatever comes next. If you’re willing to adopt — and anybody can do this, it costs no money. It’s just a different perspective. If you’re willing to think more like a futurist, which is to say confront your cherished beliefs, lean into uncertainty, and be nimble with how you think, you’re going to get through this. The challenge is that I’m seeing the sort of corporate anxiety which, once you get on a cycle of that, is hard to stop. Companies start making weird decisions or they slam on their brakes. I mean, we’ve seen a bunch of that over the past couple of weeks. This is as much an opportunity to identify risk as it is to think through where are effective measures that we could be taking to not just help out everybody else but help our bottom line. There’s a lot of opportunity here.

I mentioned this to you guys earlier: I’m politically independent, but I’m a pragmatist, and my greatest fear right now is that the Trump administration are nowists. They are not futurists. They think only about what’s good for them right now. They are absolutely unwilling to think long term and they are absolutely unwilling to make short-term sacrifices. In the past, that has resulted in entertaining tweet storms, that has resulted in irritations. This time around, it’s going to result in people dying.

And we have to be willing to confront the fact now that, without being alarmist, without being emotional, we just have to be willing to confront alternative futures. We have to right now be willing to accept uncertainty and to think the unthinkable. And right now, that means accepting the possibility that by the end of the summer 2 million Americans could die. And if that’s a plausible future state, then how do we work backward to create a better outcome? In New York, stuff is shut down for a couple of weeks. In some ways that’s going to help flatten the curve as people are now saying. But that’s a short-term solution that doesn’t address a longer-term issue. And the real problem here is a psychological one because we’re going to get to the end of those two weeks and I think people are going to feel as though the virus should be gone and it’s not going to be.

So we have an opportunity now — individually, collectively — to start mapping out alternative futures. They don’t all have to be dystopian. There are lots of really awesome things that could also happen as a result of this. For example, we’re starting to see huge investments in synthetic biology and new ways of using AI as a way to speed scientific discovery. That’s amazing because on the end of this, we could wind up with precision medication, we could wind up with synthetic agriculture as a way to mitigate climate change. There are going to be some good things on the other end of it. And now is the time to start thinking through “where is there risk, where is there opportunity, and how can we start modeling alternative futures?”