She also talks about the most important developments this week in the podcast Handelsblatt Disrupt. Her message: “Many of these technological developments are not stopped by the corona crisis – they are accelerated”. These are the main trends the just published report:
Everyone is measured
When it comes to dealing with data, many look to China with horror. Especially when it comes to the digital rating systems with which every Chinese is categorized. But similar systems have long been in use all over the world, says Webb. Companies measure the time at which Internet users are online, what they do with their smartphones, what they read and who they communicate with.
They condense this information into profiles, and on the basis of this data, automatic systems make decisions for and about each individual: “For example, customers are increasingly being shown different offers or prices – based on the information that companies have collected about them,” she says Futurologist.
Even how long and how intensively users click on certain links or images is registered – as are noises and conversations in people’s homes, via smart speakers or other networked household appliances.
Hundreds of companies then compress this data into profiles – often without the knowledge of the user. This includes companies like Zeta Global and Kustomer, which use the information they collect to predict how much money potential customers will spend.
The provider Maxmind in turn draws conclusions from the location of the users. Which companies dominate this market – and who primarily owns the data and profiles, will be one of the major debates of the next few years, according to Webb.
Household data emissions
Digital thermostats, voice-controlled microwaves and intelligent loudspeakers: the market for connected home electronics is one of the fastest growing technology sectors. Many of these devices make life easier. At the same time, people use this technology to produce unimaginable amounts of data.
“Hardly anyone has ever thought about how they will be used,” warns Webb. She calls these masses of data “digital emissions”, which do not harm the environment – but possibly the individual. Because millions of users reveal sensitive biometric information such as body temperature, pulse, weight (which are measured by networked scales), eating habits and watching TV.
And new partnerships are emerging in the business Amazon teamed up with the prefabricated house manufacturer Lennar – to develop networked houses. Amazon has also filed a patent for a technology that allows the group’s intelligent doorbell to monitor not only the entrance area of the houses, but also the surrounding area.
Google’s Nest home system, in turn, identifies people with facial recognition, much like many other home technologies. As a result, millions of hours of video recordings are regularly uploaded to the Internet. The masses of information that people have at home have so far been an often unused resource. But that would change, according to Webb.
Digitally enhanced hearing and seeing
A few years ago smart glasses were like Google Glass as the next big thing. So far, the technology has been a disappointment. According to Webb, the so-called audio augmented reality will first gain in importance: This means intelligent headphones that are able to explain to the user things like a virtual city guide that are currently visible in their surroundings.
The audio specialist Bose is working on such technologies, for example. Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook nevertheless continue to research smart glasses. Technology is already leaving the laboratories in China: the start-up Rokid has developed intelligent glasses that promise to be able to measure the body temperature of strangers. Allegedly, the glasses used by security forces in some Chinese provinces scan the temperature of hundreds of people in minutes.
Big Tech discovers the farm
Companies like Amazon and Microsoft believe they can make agriculture more efficient with data analysis and algorithms. With Azure Farmbeats, Microsoft has developed a platform for networked farms on which data from a wide variety of sensors converge, including drones. The platform analyzes the data and then recommends the farmers how they can better use their resources.
The potential is enormous, says Webb. On the one hand, the field is hardly digitized. On the other hand, it is a multi-billion dollar market.
The “synthetic age” begins
“We will look back at the 2020s as a time when synthetic media grew up,” says Webb. Everything that users see or hear online can be artificial: there are computer-generated pop stars like the Japanese Hatsune Miku or virtual assistants like Google Duplex who organize appointments and answer calls. This can be entertaining or even helpful in the case of digital assistants.
“But the new age also harbors risks,” says Webb, because the technology also opens up new opportunities for fraudsters. Nobody can be sure that the U.S. President’s speech, which was just shared on Facebook, was actually delivered that way or that the social media character followed by thousands is genuine.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019 that a UK energy company employee had transferred € 220,000 to a fraudster after being asked to do so by his boss’s fake voice over the phone. Webb expects the digital doubles from celebrities and top executives to be offered in the darknet marketplaces soon.
AI and robots on call
On the cloud platforms from Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Alibaba Artificial Intelligence is getting more and more into focus. With cloud-based AI applications, companies can analyze their data or plan resources more efficiently. And the more data companies entrust to the major cloud platforms, the faster they can train and improve their AI systems and thus stand out from the competition.
Arun Sundararajan of the NYU Stern School of Management analyzes that the winner of this race has the chance to become the operating system of the next technological age. In the course of this development, according to Webbs analyzes, robots are increasingly being controlled via the cloud. Cloud robotics and automation are the key words.
Different physical robots share programming code stored in the data cloud – and exchange data. This could significantly accelerate the development of robots. This could result in greater automation – and the return of production to high-wage countries.
The digitalization of war
“The wars of the future will be waged with code,” says Webb, “Data and algorithms will become weapons.” The most important AI companies in the United States and China work with the military again and again. Microsoft, for example, is building virtual reality headsets for the U.S. Army for $ 480 million. Google in turn helped the army in the Maven project, the Pentagon’s AI project – but came under massive pressure from its employees.
According to analyzes by Webbs Institute, AI is becoming a focus of attention as a weapon. In order to destabilize a country’s economy, it is no longer necessary to bomb cities, a sophisticated attack with malware should be enough. With these AI skills, China is “dangerously superior to the West.”
Read the full interview with Amy Webb here:
Ms. Webb, alongside governments and the military, you also advise companies. What mistakes do you see when it comes to innovations and disruptive changes in this difficult time?
Companies in all industries do not recognize technical developments quickly enough because they look too much at their own business and related technologies. Your view is too narrow. They do not notice how the technological world around them is changing – and are vulnerable to attacks by new competitors.
What question do you hear most often from companies at the moment?
When is the crisis over? And: what does the world look like afterwards?
What is your forecast?
To do this, you have to look at all industries – but also the education system – individually. For example, I am worried about our children. Numerous studies show how important early school education is for its later development. In the corona crisis, an entire generation missed classes for several weeks because schools in many countries are not prepared for distance learning.
This will have dramatic consequences: In 15 years from our calculations, we will see a large wave of technology-related unemployment through further automation. This is exactly the time when many smaller children of this corona generation start their careers with educational deficits. Chinese schools are much better prepared for this situation because digital learning has already been practiced at a distance in many places.
The travel industry is also experiencing major upheavals. Some experts assume that there will be less travel in the future.
We already heard that during the discussion about virtual reality: Given the new technical possibilities, hardly anyone would physically go to a meeting anymore.
Instead, there has been more travel than ever in recent years.
I agree. And today we know that the new technology often causes headaches. I believe that people will travel again and attend conferences as normal, people are just social beings. I can’t say when that will be possible again.
So won’t the corona crisis change transportation?
There will be changes, but more where many are not looking. For example with drones or autonomous transport robots. There are already delivery drones that are being tested in Switzerland and the USA. Now the airspace is free in many places because fewer planes are on the way. In addition, people stay at home for fear of infection, but need medication and food. Now is the best time to test the technique.
There is not yet much activity in this direction.
I’m surprised that Amazon doesn’t act much faster here. UPS has a similar technique that is already working. But there are also small, autonomous boxes on wheels that can deliver products. We are currently seeing tests of this kind in Singapore. That should only be the beginning.
Is strategic planning even possible in such a difficult time as the corona crisis?
Absolutely. Now all plans have to be rewritten. Because in many fields the world will change dramatically. Businesses that are now waiting and letting things happen are going to get into trouble.
What do you mean exactly?
The corona crisis is changing supply chains, workflows and research in many industries. I expect an accelerated development in many fields – from synthetic biology, which helps with the search for vaccines, for example, to wearables, i.e. smart watches and headphones. In addition, we will see very far-reaching proposals for privacy curtailment: Google and Apple, for example, have just decided to cooperate on technologies in the fight against Corona. This has long-term consequences, because for such applications users open their stay data for monitoring.
Do you think some of these monitoring options will remain after the crisis?
That’s what I’m expecting. Once you allow such an invasion of privacy, it is difficult for many to revoke it. This will accelerate another trend, namely that all users will be measured and evaluated and categorized by so-called scoring systems. A development that we will see more and more outside of China. Since the beginning of the corona crisis, we have observed accelerated development and financing of such scoring systems all over the world.
Will we see deglobalization in the next few months, as some economists suspect?
I’m more likely to de-chinaize. Much of the global supply of consumer goods and equipment is still related to China. We have to rethink the strategy.
How is China’s role changing in the crisis?
China had been working to change the global economy before the crisis. As part of the Silk Road Initiative, the country had exported its digital surveillance systems to numerous emerging countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. China had started dividing the world into countries that work with the Chinese – and use a similar digital surveillance infrastructure – and the rest of the world. This development will now accelerate.
Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a key role here.
I agree. China is using the crisis to collect a lot more data. Location data of people, but also highly sensitive biometric information. This will make the data analysis skills and AI technologies of the companies there even better. Incidentally, this development does not only affect individual users. Companies in China are also recorded and categorized by automatic scoring systems. At the same time, a new military-technological complex is emerging. Because the weapons of the future are data and algorithms. And many companies that work closely with the military are also the most advanced in AI research. I am concerned that the global pandemic will trigger an economic-technological war that we have never seen before.
Ms. Webb, thank you very much for the interview.
More: Futurist Amy Webb on the seven most important 2020 tech trends in the Handelsblatt Disrupt podcast