Futurist Amy Webb says the media’s next big disruption will be in voice — how we talk to machines and how machines talk to each other. Media companies don’t have a seat at the table where that infrastructure is being built, she says, and the missed opportunities because of that could be fatal.
When we talk about the future, we tend to lean on a visual language of “seeing” and crystal balls. For news media, however, hearing the future may turn out to be a lot more important.
So warns futurist Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute, who says that a massive technological revolution is underway in which our typing-centric computational world is going to be replaced by voice, putting in place a whole new infrastructure that will rewrite the digital landscape and how we talk with our machines.
Only a handful of companies like Amazon, Google and Apple are at the table developing that infrastructure. None of those with a seat are media companies.
Before I go further, let me take a step back to speak to all the skeptics whose brows immediately furrowed at the word “futurist.” Yes, it’s designation that has been affixed to any number of charlatans, and I sense your wariness. But a bona fide, professional futurist is someone whose work is driven by quantitative and some qualitative data analysis, Webb emphasizes. A real futurist’s look at trends is never trendy.
I’ve followed Webb’s work for years now, initially through her annual, standing-room-only presentation at the Online News Association’s conference, where she’s a longstanding favorite of digital media’s cognoscenti. I’ll just add this: She has an uncanny knack for really accurate prognostications, such as calling the widespread adoption of ephemeral messaging apps years ahead of Snapchat’s blockbuster IPO.
So, back to voice. Webb says we’re at a point now that’s a lot like the late 1980s when the commercial internet was getting ready to launch. News organizations weren’t at the table back then, either, and they had to build on to the internet after the fact. Today it’s easy to see how news is still struggling to build a meaningful business model for its digital platforms.
“Just as the internet is now the invisible infrastructure through which information travels, voice is the next iteration of that,” Webb says. “Us talking to machines; machines talking to each other — that’s what’s next.”
Webb is not talking about the few media companies that can boast they’ve launched early apps for Google Home or Amazon Alexa, the vanguard of consumer products for this voice-driven paradigm. Those devices are just containers, so don’t mistake them for the infrastructure that sits behind them, she cautions.
There’s an opportunity now to think through what the future of information looks — or sounds — like. Webb says that 2021 is a target year for a turning point where more people are speaking into their computers than typing into them, when the everyday consumer will recognize great strides in what’s known as artificial narrow intelligence, or non-sentient AI focused on a single task (think Apple’s Siri). That, in turn, is laying the groundwork for artificial general intelligence, which is a machine with the ability to apply intelligence to any problem.
Ideally, media companies should be doing “deep, significant experimentation” in this area right now, Webb presses. They should be planning out different business model scenarios for an age in which people can have meaningful conversations with machines, even if those are initially narrow.
Wait, what the hell? asks the exasperated news executive who has stayed with the column this far. I am not managing some tech company with the boundless resources (and imperative) to spend on blue-sky research shooting for where we all might be in a decade or so. There is no ROI for me to create the position — let alone the whole team — that would be necessary to play around in the airy terrain of HAL and the Jetsons.
To which, Webb retorts: “If news organizations cede that work to outside corporations, they lose the ability to provide anything but content, and they’re already losing at that game.”
Let me put this in a broader perspective for a moment. Webb is not some kind of fetishist for all things digital. When our conversation moved on to news and virtual reality, for instance, she was surprisingly skeptical of the early forays some news organizations are making there.
She says that if the cost of making the VR video (both in terms of production and marketing) doesn’t outweigh whatever benefit the company may reap, then sure, go for it.
But if a news organization truly asks itself, “when is the average person going to use this?” its VR enthusiasm may dampen.
VR asks a lot of the consumer, Webb notes. Even after its early kinks are worked out and its initial adopters are less apt to suffer nausea or vertigo in the experience, it still demands a complete surrender of external sound and vision, not to mention the user’s ability to multitask during the video.
Plus, “once that novelty and fascination wear off, all that’s going to be left is content,” Webb says. “So, if you’re not telling the most amazing story ever, then you’re pouring a lot of resources into an experience which very few people are able or willing to enjoy.”
Webb would much rather news organizations invest that same time and resources into developing voice or AI platforms. And they can’t go at that endeavor as single organizations, let’s say The Washington Post or NBC News, setting up shop with a small skunkworks team working in isolation, she says.
No, this is going to take cross-industry collaboration on a wide scale. Think a media Manhattan Project to ensure its long-term survival on its own terms, not just as one lowly content provider among enough teeming alternatives to fill a diner menu.
Still think this is just so much sci-fi palaver around a crisis that doesn’t even exist yet? Perhaps, but one of the other trends Webb follows is cord cutting, which most broadcasters know is no distantly fictional consumer phenomenon.
On that front, Webb is looking to when the current demographic triangle flips, and the market is teeming with people who’ve never even had a television in their homes, only a monitor or just a phone instead.
The smart broadcasters are planning for that eventuality now, she says, as cord cutting is only accelerating by every meaningful measure.
“It’s always better to be in a position to make strategy decisions when you’ve been thinking about something for a while and you’ve got some evidence and data rather than to make them in duress,” Webb says.
That’s on the cord-cutting front. Meanwhile, the real future of information and how it moves around may be fundamentally changing, and the maps for those pathways are being drawn now.
And I’d only ask, what’s more powerful: To help draw the map or to follow its lines after the ink is dry?
Michael Depp is TVNewsCheck’s special projects editor. His column on the nexus of old and new media will appear regularly. He can be reached at [email protected].