Listen to weak signals

“If you don’t simultaneously pay attention to signals from news and also those coming from adjacent areas, you’re effectively looking at the world through a pinhole camera.”

There is no such thing as “predicting” the future. I know that seems like a strange statement coming from a quantitative futurist. A prediction would assume that most of the variables that make up everyday life are fixed. You might be able to predict the outcome of an election or a baseball game, but that kind of statistical analysis doesn’t work for foresight, and it certainly doesn’t apply to thinking about the future of news.

The best we can do is to listen to weak signals about emerging technologies in the present, to recognize patterns early, and to build out possible, plausible, and probable scenarios that describe implications. News organizations must focus on incremental actions, starting right now. But they cannot effectively plan for the future without thinking broadly. If you don’t simultaneously pay attention to signals from news and also those coming from adjacent areas, you’re effectively looking at the world through a pinhole camera.

In October, I open-sourced my forecasting methodology and all of my research. I also published a new report, which details 75 emerging tech trends for news. Going into 2018, these are some key insights for every news organization, regardless of size or geographic location:

  • In 2018, a critical mass of emerging technologies will converge finding advanced uses beyond initial testing and applied research. That’s a signal worth paying attention to. News organizations should devote attention to emerging trends in voice interfaces, the decentralization of content, mixed reality, new types of search, and hardware (such as CubeSats and smart cameras).
  • Journalists need to understand what artificial intelligence is, what it is not, and what it means for the future of news. It is vitally important that all decision-makers within news organizations familiarize themselves with the current and emerging AI landscapes. At the moment, the future of the AI ecosystem is being created primarily by nine big corporations: Microsoft, Alphabet, Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, Facebook, IBM, and Apple.
  • Decentralization is a key theme for 2018. There will be a new emphasis on restricted peer-to-peer networks to detect harassment, share resources, and connect with sources. There will also be a push by some democratic governments around the world to divide internet access and to restrict certain content, effectively creating dozens of “splinternets.”
  • Consolidation will also be a key theme for 2018. News brands, broadcast spectrum, and artificial intelligence startups will continue to be merged with and acquired by relatively few corporations. Pending legislation and policy in the U.S., E.U., and parts of Asia could further concentrate the power among a small cadre of information and technology organizations in the year ahead.

To understand the future of news, you must pay attention to the future of many industries and research areas in the coming year. When journalists think about the future, they should broaden the usual scope to consider developments from myriad other fields also participating in the knowledge economy. Technology begets technology. We are witnessing an explosion in slow motion.

Amy Webb is founder of the Future Today Institute.

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