Stephanie Murray October 7, 2017

The leaders of news organizations, people in their 40s, 50s and 60s tend to be “nowists.”

That means they think about the next 12 months and the coming one to five years more than any other timeframe. Three in four say they never engage in longer-term planning for the future of news, according to futurist Amy Webb’s 2017 Global Futures Survey released Saturday.

And that’s something to be worried about, Webb told those who packed into her 10th annual Tech Trends talk Saturday morning at the Online News Association conference in Washington, D.C.

Of course, there’s plenty to be uneasy about in 2017, Webb said. Take U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear threats or the idea that robots are coming for our jobs.

Larger than those fears, Webb said, is the future that most news organizations are wildly unprepared for.

“While I’m concerned about our baby-faced leader halfway around the world and his access to a nuclear arsenal, I’m actually more worried about the future of journalism,” Webb said. “In the year 2017, we are standing at the event horizon for the next era of technology.

“This year is different than all of the other years that came before it and what’s about to happen is going to fundamentally alter journalism. We’re going to end up on the other side of this with a media landscape we may not recognize.”

Webb says she forecasts the future, not predicts it, by analyzing data and identifying trends.Webb typically creates a general report and shares relevant trends that apply to media during her talk at ONA.

For the first time ever, she also shared a 2018 tech trends report with 75 trends just for journalism and media.

Webb is so concerned about the future of news she not only created a separate report — she made her entire body of work public via a Dropbox link during her talk.

“I’m doing this because I’m very, very concerned, and I believe that everybody in here can change the direction that we’re heading in,” Webb said. “But in order to do that you’ve got to be prepared.”

Webb introduced 11 trends organized into three clusters — visual computing, voice interfaces and access — that she says will dramatically change the way we distribute and consume news over the next decade. The futurist laid out the trends, examples and a trio of “optimistic, pragmatic and catastrophic” models of the outcome of each cluster.

Visual computing

The first cluster of trends included computational photography, tiny satellites called CubeSats that are capable of taking photos in real time, object recognition and adversarial machine learning.

“We’re trained machine learning systems to recognize people, objects and places under all different kinds of circumstances,” Webb said.

Augmented reality, which Webb forecast in 2015 and 2016, is more promising than virtual reality for news organizations. Webb forecasts augmented reality glasses similar to the ones we wear today paired with other wearable devices like rings.

“Ten years from now, all of the things we do that require us to hold our smartphones up,” Webb said. “We’ll still be doing all of those things, we just won’t have a smartphone there.”

She said the world could become “a giant canvas” where the “physical realm and the digital realm are melded.” A world where you can look at someone’s posture and immediately find out who it is. Webb forecasts consumers will be able to look at someone’s clothing and glance to approve a purchase.

The futurist pointed to Megvii, a company based in China that uses attributes like posture and physical shape to identify people without seeing their faces. In the future, the technology paired with wearable computers could allow people to quickly find the name of someone they recognize but can’t quite place. Phenotype-based genomic identification can even use DNA to create a three-dimensional rendering of what a person looks like solely based on their DNA.

Another manifestation of the visual computing trend includes a a deep learning algorithm that scraped 70,000 photos of gay and straight people from a dating site and trained a system to recognize a gay person from a straight person.

“That should have every single person in this room feeling pretty uncomfortable,” Webb said.

When it comes to implications, Webb says she thinks pragmatically. A pragmatic forecast of the the implications of visual computing says the trend will push some news organizations to consolidate or go out of business. Developers will continue teaching computers to recognize stereotypes and lead to the “advent of digital discrimination.”

If Webb’s catastrophic model pans out, news organizations could face huge layoffs and consolation after they lose advertisers and market share to new visual news platforms and startups. “Digital graffiti” could proliferate and lose the ability to detect fake news. Machines trained on horrible stereotypes would make decisions that impact human lives, Webb said.

Voice interfaces

Alexa, when will user interfaces (UI) be defunct?

Machine reading comprehension is on the rise, Webb said, and voice interfaces like Amazon’s Alexa pose serious questions about future business models for news.

“This is incredibly important because ten years from now, we will be in an era of zero UI, conversational interfaces where we are surrounded by machines.

“And we are not inputting information,” Webb said “We are talking to them.”

In an example, Webb used Google to search for the answer to a question. The search engine brought her to a list of links, she clicked into a story and read through it to find the answer she sought. Using AI-powered Audioburst, Amy asked Alexa the same question and within 30 seconds heard the answer to her question via a relevant bit of an audio piece.

When Alexa gives us the news, Webb said, there’s no masthead. There’s no banner ad that comes along with the story. Alexa won’t stop every five seconds to attribute every tidbit to a different news organization.

“How do you monetize that?” Webb asked.

Algorithms that generate a person’s voice are also being developed. Take startup Lyrebird AI, for example, which generates audio in Donald Trump’s voice and uses it to produce audio of things he never said.

“It sounds kind of janky, but if you are in a rush would you stop and say, ‘Wait a minute, was that computer generated?'” Webb asked.

Access

Trends like splinternets, radical transparency and blockchain for news fell into Webb’s final category, and have the more dire potential impacts on news.

By 2027, Webb said, the internet could look like a series of splinternets where the laws in certain regions alter the way information is shared online. She pointed to a map of pending cases and regulatory policies pending before Facebook, Twitter and Google in countries across the globe.

“The World Wide Web is no longer the World Wide Web where free information flows,” Webb said. “Journalism could wind up flowing differently through each splinternet’s information boundaries.

“If you think we have a problem today with misinformation, can you imagine … if information is completely dependent on the place in the world you are in?”

Many industries like insurance, law enforcement, real estate and ride hailing are experimenting with blockchain. Blockchain for news shows promise, Webb said, where information is publicly authenticated and hits the network once it is verified. The technology could help slow the news cycle to a more reasonable pace, Webb said.

As for outcomes, the optimistic view is out because WHY. Webb said a pragmatic view and a catastrophic view are equally likely. The pragmatic outcome model says society’s trust in media will continue to erode, splinternets will rise and along with them will come the development of expensive, difficult-to-manage regional systems within Facebook and Google to accommodate those rules.

The catastrophic forecast says news organizations will collapse after losing market share to startups that publish machine-generated, high frequency news based on sentiment and early details. Society will be unable to manage the splinternet system and widespread information campaigns will proliferate. Democracy will crumble.

But that hasn’t happened yet — And there’s no guarantee it will.

“This is not because I’m a pessimist. I’m not somebody who is constantly thinking in terms of doom. I’m a pragmatist,” Webb said. “If we make different decisions starting right now, we can chart a different course toward the future because these scenarios haven’t happened yet.

“I believe that you have the power to create the future that you want, and in order to do that I don’t want you to become early adopters,” Webb said. “I want you to become early adapters. I want you to adapt to the changes that are coming and I want every one of you to start taking incremental action on the trends every single day.”

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