In over 15 rich years of public forecasting, Amy Webb has become one of the most famous futurologists.
The former journalist is the author of non-fiction books like “The Big Nine”, in which he examines the potentially dire consequences of untested artificial intelligence; “Data: A Love Story” about how she used algorithms to date herself; and “The Signals Are Talking,” in which she examined how to read the right tea leaves better. As the founder and director of the Future Today Institute, Webb has led a group that identifies and advises the impending social and technological change for all types of organizations. (The institute also publishes an indispensable “Tech Trends Report” every year on what can be imagined for the future.)
Webb has collaborated with pioneering geneticist Andrew Hessel on a new book called “The Genesis Machine” that talks about the possibilities and pitfalls of synthetic biology – the general idea that science will allow us to change everything from the manufacture of medicines, food and people. (Designer babies, she says, are the wrong way to think about it.)
As the year 2022 begins with ever higher levels of innovation – and with it a lot of hype and fear – the Washington Post chatted with Webb about topics as diverse as laboratory-made meat, CRISPR gene editing, 5G and the future of reproduction. The conversation has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
Q: Let’s start with the subjects of your new book. They are very optimistic about the many possibilities science offers us in reproduction. What do you see as some of them?
A: We are talking about a technology that will unleash our ability to be more selective and to shape life on purpose. Perhaps that means that a person uses their own genetic material to mature an embryo; perhaps it opens up the possibility of selecting traits from more than two parents. We don’t know what it will look like, but I think the possibilities can be very good. All of this means optionality.
Q: As you read your book, you feel like you have an almost philosophical belief that people should reconsider their opinions about how people are created. If synthetic biology can deliver on some of those promises – if, for example, it removes any age restrictions on egg fertilization or if embryos can be created outside of a human body – what do these changes mean for us as a society? Are you changing it fundamentally?
A: The thing is, we never stopped asking how we got to this point. Up until now a baby was a man and a woman and had the necessary structures for it. And now synthetic biology gives us other options. Forty years in the future, many parents may have a child, or a 70-year-old and his 60-year-old spouse may choose to have a baby. Why should we close ourselves to these possibilities?
Q .: There are people who say that CRISPR and what is beyond it is a bridge that is too wide to allow some kind of manipulation on a social or even state level. You don’t agree with them much.
ONE: [Laughs] All roads on this path lead to eugenics. Fears that it will become “gattaca” – nations can shape populations on purpose. You see, we have to recognize the geopolitical advantages that some countries might seek in improving the intelligence and physical characteristics of their people. But we should be aware of the idea of making pregnancy easier for people who really want to become parents. Right now, the birth of a child depends on chance and chance or on enough money for many IVF cycles. Having a baby in 2022 will be shockingly difficult. It shouldn’t be like that.
Q: Of course, synthetic biology doesn’t have to relate only to humans. How much promise do you keep for changing animals, plants – the food supply?
A: It is very important to me when people come out and talk about how to support food suppliers in the event of economic uncertainty or after a major climate disaster. The solutions should not be to subsidize what has always been done. We need to find new ways to scale production, whether it be through indoor plant factories or using genetic engineering to produce plants or making grain that can withstand extreme heat. And then the animals. There is so much instability in the market because of our incredible reliance on meat. And I think the ideal – I think the plausible result, really – is how we produce meat differently.
Q: Even if we could do this affordable on a large scale – and there are many scientists who say we can’t – there are some pretty entrenched interests that would be pushing back. Producers, for starters.
A: I agree and I don’t know if we will do some of this within a generation. But we have to go in that direction. We don’t have a lot of choices.
SZ: It reminds me a little of the pharmaceutical industry in terms of the need for change versus the ability to do so.
A: If someone were to develop a universal mRNA-based flu vaccine, it would be problematic for a number of companies that made their money on the current model, from medical records to doctor’s offices to CVS – a whole business ecosystem. But we should do it anyway. Part of synthetic biology will cause problems for today’s business models in the future. The model will have to adapt, just like us. Incidentally, that will also be a challenge.
Q: Yes, it is always interesting how many of us have difficulty imagining these changes – for example when describing food or medicine. It wasn’t long ago there was no in vitro fertilization or antibiotics. Yet we struggle to imagine how life will be different. Our minds have an almost chemical inability to accept changes in moving forward compared to moving backward.
A: I think that’s true. I also think it has to do with the pace of change in recent years. Technology is advancing much faster than society can; Technology is evolving much faster than our ability to face our cherished beliefs. People know how to promote the values they know. They don’t realize that these values were self-created, synthetic and innovative. So we could be innovative and create new ones.
Q: This predilection for the status quo can also often be shared by policy makers and thought leaders.
A: Completely. The fact that the US does not view food supplies as an issue of national strategic importance is a big one here, to come back to it. We are drastically underinvested as a country to study how we will produce food in a world of climate change. And we’re running out of time. It is so short-sighted of us not to invest in these areas. I mean, we lost our minds at the start of the pandemic when we couldn’t have our raisin bran. Think of this on a much, much, much, much deeper scale.
Q: Let’s move on to something that pops up pretty immediately: 5G. We’re about to finally get it out on the market and I think a lot of consumers are wondering what it will really mean. What do you think is the biggest immediate impact?
A: In my opinion, the greatest immediate effect will not occur here. It will happen in China. 5G will bring an incomprehensible number of people online at the same time. And that suddenly makes China an extremely attractive market for goods and services.
Q: What could be – maybe? – good for Americans worried about the trade deficit? Are we not just becoming consumers of what they produce, but rather producers of what they consume?
A: If we roll back decades of offshore manufacturing and take on our role as producers, yes. It can take a long time. Having all these consumers now means that suddenly there is a lot less supply for us. And that means higher prices.
Q: Hmm, any positive effects?
A: A great improvement in telemedicine. More drone deliveries. Some others.
Q: Speaking of things we’ve heard a lot about lately, the metaverse. Like 5G earlier, it will either change everything or nothing, depending on the person speaking or the day.
A: Most of what happens to the Metaverse sounds super-lively and over-the-top. The future of the metaverse, for example, are not avatars.
A: I don’t think so. I think they are digital twins. The idea of getting 3D renderings of all types of spaces. Remember what it means for houses only, what we can know about how they are built, or whether there is asbestos. That’s only an example. It connects the physical with the digital. It doesn’t have to be cartoons.
Q: One consequence of the Metaverse Conversations is that the Internet will be more embodied – less about the phone we hold outside of us, but more about something we carry and are integrated with us. You have always said that we are on the cusp of a major smartphone decline. Do you still believe that
Answer: yes. We said in the 2018 report that smartphones would disappear by 2031, and I still believe that. Nothing has changed. Fewer things are done by one device than it is now. It will be close to us and carried everywhere.
Q: That seems like a minor change in form factor, but I think it might actually feel quite big.
A: Very important. Just think about eyesight. Right now, your eyes are so strained looking at a screen. That’ll get rid of so much of it.
Q: OK, your biggest fear for the year ahead.
A: How blockchain and NFTs and decentralization will lead to new forms of hacktivism. I’m afraid it will be a serious problem.
Q: Finally I have to ask. You wrote a book and did a viral ted talk about how you met your husband by developing an algorithm. Do you think this approach will accelerate even further, taking us well beyond the kind of gentle filtering that is currently occurring in dating apps? Will we find partners mainly through AI?
A: Fortunately, I didn’t have to go back so well. [Laughs.] But I’m looking at one of the best recommendation engines out there, and it’s TikTok. People love to consume content they recommend. Why wouldn’t you use something like this for dating too?