Amy Webb: “Human DNA is in the DNA of our AI systems”

As AI increasingly finds its way into a variety of life and work environments, GEN decided to speak with Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and author of ‘The Big Nine — How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity’. Amy shares her views on where the development is heading, who the main players are, and what are the misconceptions in the industry.

Nicolas Kristen
May 9, 2019 · 9 min read

American futurist Amy Webb, an expert in both AI and finding future tech trends, shares her thoughts on why it is important to remember that humans are in charge of AI’s development and use: “We are literally entangled with it, because it is our data that are being used to train AI systems, to build future applications, and to make millions of decisions on our behalf, both small and significant.” That being said, we shall not fear the robots, but be wary of the people in charge of them.

Amy Webb will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming GEN Summit in Athens! Join us and get your tickets!

GEN: You just released a new book, ‘The Big Nine — How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity’ and you state that: ‘The Big Nine aren’t the villains in this story. In fact, they are our best hope for our future.’ Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

If ‘The Big Nine’ and therefore a small group of companies control the future of AI, what are some of the potential negative scenarios you see? In history, did you see such a concentration of power regarding the future of our societies?

The Big Nine: Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple from the US, as well as Chinese internet leaders Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent

The real future of AI is hard to see without dedicating time and effort to learning more about what it is, what it isn’t, and how AI relates to human life. It’s dangerous to pre-assign utopian or apocalyptic narratives to what AI will become —that would assume that we have no say or agency in our futures.

Humanity is facing an existential crisis in a very literal sense, because no one is addressing a simple question that has been fundamental to AI since its very inception: What happens to society when we transfer power to a system built by a small group of people that is designed to make decisions for everyone? What happens when those decisions are biased toward market forces or an ambitious political party?

The answer is reflected in the future opportunities we have, the ways in which we are denied access, the social conventions within our societies, the rules by which our economies operate, and even the way we relate to other people.

Do you think that a so-called democratisation of AI is necessary and to what degree would a democratisation be possible given the monopolistic tendencies and competitive nature of the tech market where the majority of development is happening?

In your book, you also talk about the U.S. and China moving in very different directions when it comes to AI development. Where are the differences and what are some of the future implications of this disparity for the industry?

In ‘The Big Nine — How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity’, Webb talks about the role of large tech giants in the AI sector, potential scenarios and problems in the future, as well the development of the different directions it is taking in China and the U.S.

In China, AI’s developmental track is tethered to the grand ambitions of government. Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba may be publicly traded giants, but typical of all large Chinese companies, they must bend to the will of Beijing.

We must consider the developmental track of AI within the broader context of China’s grand plans for the future. AI is part of a series of national edicts and laws that aim to control all information generated within China and to monitor the data of its residents as well as the citizens of its various strategic partners. These policies and initiatives are brainchildren of President Xi Jinping’s inner circle, which for the past decade has been singularly focused on rebranding and rebuilding China into our predominant global superpower. China is more authoritarian today than under any previous leaders since Chairman Mao Zedong, and advancing and leveraging AI are fundamental to the cause.

Xi’s endgame is abundantly clear: to create a new world order in which China is the de facto leader. And yet, during this time of Chinese diplomatic expansion, the United States turned its back on longstanding global alliances and agreements as President Trump erected a new bamboo curtain.

AI isn’t a trendy technology. We are literally entangled with it, because it is our data that are being used to train AI systems, to build future applications, and to make millions of decisions on our behalf, both small and significant. Therefore, we cannot treat AI as though it were just any other technology. We are asking machines to make decisions and choices for us, and we are expected to accept the outcome of those decisions and choices, whether they are in the realm of banking, medical care, transportation, national defense, policing,… the list could go on. That list includes the news media. I worry that news organisation leaders just aren’t prepared for what is unfolding.

Read more about the trends in news and social media in the FTI Tech Trends Report 2019

Where do you see worrisome trends in regards to AI regulations and development when looking at tech giants as well as countries today?

At the World Economic Forum’s 2019 conference in Davos, you argued that the exaggerated fears and optimism around the technology come from ignoring the fact that humans are in charge of its development and use. Why is it important to remember the human factor in AI technology?

When it comes to artificial intelligence, we have a lot of misplaced optimism and fear, and that’s the result of a serious misunderstanding fed by decades of exceptional storytelling in books, movies, and TV shows — like Skynet in the Terminator. It’s important to remember that we all have cognitive biases. We’ve been living with the idea of AI for so long that we are missing much of the most important developments happening right now in the present. Human DNA is in the DNA of our AI systems.

The Future Institute’s methodology: collecting data and alternating between flared and focused thinking

As different countries and regions chose different approaches on how to go about implementing new technology like AI into daily society, how important is it to agree on best practices and regulations as a global community?

It may seem impossible to unite the governments of the world around a central cause given the political rancor and geopolitical uneasiness we’ve experienced in the past few years. But there is a precedent. In the aftermath of World War II, when tensions were still high, hundreds of delegates from all Allied nations gathered together in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to build the financial structures that enabled the global economy to move forward. That collaboration was human-centered — it resulted in a future where people and nations could rebuild and seek out prosperity.

GAIA nations should collaborate on frameworks, standards, and best practices for AI. While it is unlikely that China would join, an invitation should be extended for CCP leaders and for the BAT to join. I realise this is a big ask.

When to take actions on tech trends

With AI becoming more prevalent across industries, how can newsrooms and publishers integrate artificial intelligence into the newsroom in a sustainable way? Are they condemned to be dependent on the big nine?

Given your background in journalism, what are, in your opinion, the key technical skills to acquire for journalists, aiming to familiarise themselves with computational journalism techniques?

What are the ten drivers of future change

Besides the ever decreasing attention span, have you noticed other changes in user behavior regarding media consumption during your research? Especially ones that newsrooms should be more aware of?

Regarding this year’s Tech Trends Report, what would you say are the key trends to watch out for from a newsroom’s perspective?

You can download the 2019 Tech Trends Report on the Future Today Institute here.

Amy Webb is a keynote speaker at this year’s GEN Summit in Athens, Greece, from 13 to 15 June, sharing her insights on the latest tech and business trends for newsrooms.

Join us at the GEN Summit 2019!

Amy Webb is a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business and the Founder of the Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm. Now in its second decade, the Future Today Institute helps leaders and their organizations prepare for deep uncertainties and complex futures. She is the author of the books The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream and The Big Nine. How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity.

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

Nicolas Kristen

Written by

Freelance journalist based in Vienna, currently writing for the Global Editors Network. Interested in tech, human rights and politics. @NicolasKristen

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

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