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Helen Todd is co-founder and CEO of Sociality Squared and the human behind Creativity Squared.
Sam Jordan is the manager at Future Today Institute and a futurist on a mission to spread “plausible optimism.”

Ep50. Sam Jordan: Agency in the Age of A.I.

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Ep50. Agency in the Age of A.I.: Glimpse into a Resilient Future with Sam Jordan, Author of Future Today Institute’s 2024 Tech Trend Report on A.I., Computing, and Space  

Author Ray Bradbury described sci-fi as the most important literature in the world because it’s “the history of ideas, the history of civilization birthing itself.” For instance, technology envisioned more than 50 years ago, like the smart home and the metaverse in Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” is now becoming a reality.

With powerful A.I. systems now accelerating innovation, it seems like we are witnessing a critical chapter being written in civilization’s history while trying to avoid the tragedies that Bradbury’s characters suffered.  

Few understand that dynamic better than Sam Jordan, our guest for the 50th episode of Creativity Squared. Sam is a sci-fi aficionado and a data-based strategic foresight expert who helps companies and the public anticipate what they’ll encounter on the path to progress. 

Sam is a futurist on a mission to spread “plausible optimism.” She’s a Manager and Lead of Computing and Advanced Technology Practices at Future Today Institute (FTI), the strategic advisory agency founded by renowned futurist Amy Webb who presents her equally famous South By Southwest (SXSW) Emerging Tech Trends Report keynote. Sam also authored the Future Today Institute’s 2024 Tech Trend Report on the metaverse, computing, and space in addition to co-writing the A.I. book in collaboration with Amy Webb.

Sam was previously CEO of TrovBase, a secure data discovery platform she co-founded after working for IBM modernizing IT systems. Sam holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Data Analysis from George Mason University and an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, where she met Amy Webb.

Sam shares insights with us on how the convergence of three emerging technologies is fueling a self-perpetuating tech “supercycle” of investment and innovation, expanding on and diving deeper into Amy Webb’s 2024 SXSW keynote and FTI’s 2024 Tech Trend Report. We also discuss the consolidation of power in tech, the importance of resilience, and the need for experimentation during this transitionary period.

She also demonstrates some of the strategic forecasting FTI is known for, breaking down how emerging technologies like organoid intelligence and robotics can impact the economy, public policy, and social norms.

We also dive into fascinating trends like using human brain cells to power chips, universal basic income to address the social safety net, and the importance of human purpose and meaning during this seismic change. Sam also shares her favorite sci-fi influences and emphasizes the power of storytelling and scenario planning to shape the future.

How do we keep our agency in the age of A.I.? Check out Episode 50 and keep reading to find out!

Trend Report And Supercycle Tech Trinity

The Future Today Institute is a for-profit strategic advisory firm that helps companies figure out where they should play in the future, how they can win in the future, and how to build resiliency. Using a methodology of strategic forecasting pioneered by Amy Webb, FTI separates hype and passing fads from the pitfalls and opportunities that companies should actually be monitoring. 

As a lifelong fan of sci-fi, Sam says she has her dream job at FTI, writing evidence-backed strategic plans for scenarios like deepfaked natural disasters that could fit just as well in the plot of a sci-fi novel. 

My background was in economics, I love sci-fi…I love logical arguments, and all of that combined is the skill set that you need to do strategic foresight.”

Sam Jordan

Every year, FTI publishes a comprehensive report tracking hundreds of tech and science trends across multiple sectors. The report includes countless examples of how each trend could play out in the future.  

This year’s 17th Annual Tech Trends Report (available for free download) tracks 700 trends across 16 verticals, identifying the critical uncertainties facing decision-makers and fleshing out the potential scenarios that could unfold. Sam is personally responsible for writing the Future of Computing, Future of the Metaverse, and Future of Space books. With so much to cover this year, she also helped Amy produce the report’s headline sector on the future of artificial intelligence. 

The report’s theme focuses on the convergence of three broad tech trends into what FTI is calling a tech Supercycle, defined as “an extended period of booming demand, elevating the prices of commodities and assets to unprecedented heights.” What makes a supercycle so super is that it can stretch across years or decades, driven by substantial and sustained structural changes in the economy.

The pieces of the tech trinity driving this supercycle are artificial intelligence, biotech, and the connected Internet of Things—the constellation of sensors and wearable tech constantly collecting our data. The three feed into and off of one another, making them each stronger. 

A.I. systems constantly need more data to improve. Wearables and sensors are constantly contributing health and other data to privately controlled tech companies. At the same time, we’re increasingly using A.I. to interface with our devices, incentivizing companies to make A.I. more powerful and useful. Health data from wearables is unlocking new biotech innovations with the help of A.I. analysis. The quest for more advanced medicines and the promise of more accurate personal health monitoring drives A.I. development even further.  

“These three general-purpose technologies are increasingly intertwined. They serve as inputs to each other, but also, as these areas individually improve, they lift up the other technologies. This has created a flywheel of value.”

Sam Jordan

Sam says that this phenomenon is boosting fledgling markets and creating entirely new ones, enticing investors and tech speculators. More capital means attracting more talent from academia, which leads to more innovation. More innovation means more consumer value, which attracts more funding, and so on. 

According to Sam, one effect of this supercycle is time compression in planning for the future. Even working with companies that generate billions in revenue and employ tens of thousands of people, FTI has seen planning timeframes for many of its clients shorten from ten years to two years or less. 

Yet, FTI likes to remind clients that not even the companies building emerging technology (which FTI also advises) have very long roadmaps for their technology. 

Everyone right now is feeling like they’re reacting. And when you’re reacting, you aren’t being strategic.”

Sam Jordan

Sam says that’s an advantage of FTI’s approach to strategic foresight; its methodologies for scenario planning can improve planning efforts over any time frame. 

Sam says that companies’ internal planning efforts can often underestimate the depth and breadth of changes that affect business. Companies should consider uncertainties outside their immediate industry sector, such as how social factors, ethics, and values might change.

For example, declining birth rates in developed countries may not seem important for a tech startup building a social app. But if the population’s average age trends higher over time due to fewer young people, that could seriously impact the feature roadmap or even the company’s viability. 

So even though the convergence of three major tech trends and the speed of innovation may make it harder to focus on what matters, Sam says that leaders and planners can still benefit from a systematic approach to plotting their course forward. 

Forecasting Major Tech Trends with FTI

Silicon Chips Inspired By the Human Brain 

Sci-fi is certainly becoming a reality, with some emerging trends highlighted, including chips. The key to unlocking greater computing power to meet the massive demands of modern technology is in the design and manufacturing of silicon chips.

Sam says that silicon chip builders are realizing that they can’t keep iterating on the same chip architecture that’s worked for the past 70 years because of a principle called the Von Neumann Bottleneck. Instead, chip designers are in a race to build “neuromorphic computing” chips that replicate the most efficient computer in the known universe: the human brain. These chips are built so data doesn’t have to move around in order to execute tasks. Just like our brain, information is stored and processed all in the same place.  

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University made another major breakthrough last year by publishing the world’s first demonstration of “organoid intelligence.”  

Organoids are clumps of human cells (brain cells in this case), that scientists can train to run computations or store information. In the study, organoids learned to play a simple game of Pong. More recently, Indiana University researchers taught an organoid intelligence system to differentiate between 200 unique human voices. 

Sam predicts that we’re still a long way away from any personal or commercial application for organoid intelligence, as the technology is very young and would be difficult to scale. Yet the demand for ever-more efficient computing will be a major trend over the next several years with significant implications for global financial markets, national security, and energy policy. 

A.I. Reading, Writing, and Executing Our Thoughts 

Tech companies aren’t just developing chips to replicate our brains, they’re developing systems (like Elon Musk’s Neuralink) to go into our brains. 

A pair of Japanese scientists published a paper last year in which an A.I. model was able to roughly recreate an image in somebody’s mind just by analyzing fMRI images of the subject’s brain. But Sam says that A.I. can also write to our brains to change our mood, for example. She doesn’t think this trend of brain-computer interfacing (BCI) will stay confined to big labs with fMRI machines for too long. 

I think we’re going to start to see more technologies that you and I could purchase to be able to read and write to our brains with this tech.”

Sam Jordan

Yet she’s skeptical about whether people will actually want to embed a chip in their brain, or whether a successful consumer product would need to be removable. In order for that to work, though, a removable BCI device would have to overcome the poor electrical conductivity of our skulls. 

At the end of the day, Sam predicts that most people will want to have a removable device so they can be absolutely certain that nobody is listening to their thoughts. 

The Final Frontier and Growing Space Industry

Sam self-describes as a “space fangirl,” but as the commercial spaceflight industry develops, she believes that we need better stories about space (like our previous guest Yemi A.D. is planning to produce during his upcoming spaceflight).

All of the ‘let’s get pumped for space’ content is ideally suited for people who are already pumped about space. So we need to figure out ways to bring other industries along.”

Sam Jordan

Sam sees opportunities for innovative manufacturing processes that are possible only in the vacuum of space. For instance, the pristine conditions in space would be a perfect environment for building semiconductors, which are highly sensitive to airborne contamination. While launch costs are still too high to make space manufacturing a feasible reality anytime soon, it’s an example of how space companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX can market the benefits of space and speed up the flywheel for innovation. 

Space could unlock the production of three-dimensional intelligent organoids as well. Because of Earth’s gravity, organoids grown here can only grow two-dimensionally. Sam says companies like Varda are already working to produce organs and pharmaceutical compounds in space. But who’s going to be doing the work up there? 

“Humans, unfortunately, are pretty vulnerable creatures…That said, I do think that, ultimately, human beings should go to other celestial bodies, not just our robot clones.”

Sam Jordan

This year’s space trend report also included a scenario about using the metaverse to interact with Mars remotely via robot avatar, which would allow us to prepare the red planet for our arrival. Sam predicts that robots will be the primary method of interacting with other celestial bodies (besides the moon).

Deepfakes Disrupting Trade and Society

A primary concern for FTI and its clients is understanding the potential for global disruptions like supply chain failures and civil unrest caused by coordinated deepfake campaigns. Sam predicts that deepfakes will become convincing enough within this year to be undetectable by our eyes alone. Of course, this is happening in a year set to break records for the number of elections happening around the world. Without standardized tools or labels to combat deepfake disinformation, Sam sees a recipe for disaster. One major concern isn’t just one deepfake, but whole events that could be deepfaked.  

This is the year that we are probably surpassing the uncanny valley. So our gut no longer tells us what is real and what is fake.”

Sam Jordan

FTI is gaming out hypothetical scenarios where a coordinated multimedia deepfake campaign deceives the public en masse. In Sam’s example, deepfaked news reports of a tsunami in Taiwan might include A.I.-generated satellite data as confirmation. Simultaneously, the deepfake victim might see similar reports via social media. The victim might make rash investment decisions as a result, wreaking havoc in the stock market if enough people are deceived. Such a deepfaked event could scare cargo operators to reroute international trade corridors.

Current events are one thing — what about entire historical events getting deepfaked by revisionists, extremists, or manipulative governments? Can we be sure that a particular historical event actually happened the way we think it did when there’s footage that shows otherwise? Sam says those risks are increasingly worrying US State Department officials — not just because of the supply chain impacts, but also the potential geopolitical and diplomatic risks. 

Preserving Agency in the Face of Consolidating Power and Techno-Authoritarianism

During her keynote presentation at SXSW this year, Amy Webb said that one of the concerning aspects of the tech supercycle is how it’s concentrating power among a “dangerously” small group of people who have amassed wealth and influence by controlling how we communicate. 

These people want to convince the world that they are “effective altruists” or “techno-optimists” building technology to save us all. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman summarized this attitude on a recent speaking tour, saying, “I don’t care if we burn $50 billion a year: we’re building AGI and it’s going to be worth it.”

Amy Webb uses a different term for it: “free market techno authoritarianism.” In her keynote, she said that we don’t need anyone to save us; we just need to do a better job planning for the future. 

Inspired by Amy’s keynote, we asked Sam how we can all maintain our individual agency despite the overarching pressure to get on board the bullet train to the future. 

Sam emphasizes that we must continually fight for agency. It’s a challenge, not something that can be maintained simply by staying informed, reading newsletters, or purchasing from certain companies. 

Sam considers techno authoritarianism and free agency in the context of the biblical phrase, “the meek shall inherit the Earth.” She says that while those who don’t necessarily act on their desires may inherit the Earth, it will be an Earth shaped by the builders — the ones creating technology, founding startups, writing, and producing art. 

Go out and build something, go out and create something. Because that is how you have a tangible effect on how the world ends up.”

Sam Jordan

Sam tells clients that a pessimistic scenario is inevitable if the status quo is maintained. As technology advances and behaviors change, doing nothing will lead to a pessimistic outcome every time. On the other hand, optimism requires action. Listening to informative podcasts is a great start, but we still have to ask ourselves, “So what?” afterward. She says that learning without action is useless, but building and creating are essential to having a tangible impact on the world.

“Optimism is harder. Optimism requires you to do something.”

Sam Jordan

Yet Sam acknowledges that the skills required to build something now are not the same skills one will need in order to build in the future. She says that we need to invest in developing new approaches to education and upskilling efforts by experimenting and spreading best practices. 

Universal Basic Income

But what if we can’t upskill fast enough? This week, we published a blog post about how A.I. and robotic automation could cause a chain reaction that starts with an unemployment crisis and ends with a bankrupt US Social Security system. In light of this, politicians and tech leaders are opening up to the idea of providing people with a universal basic income (UBI) regardless of how much they work. With a background in economics, we wanted to get Sam’s take on the policy. 

Sam believes UBI should replace, not supplement, current systems. She said the upside of UBI is giving people the agency to spend money as they wish. Replacing many existing aid programs, like nutrition vouchers and unemployment benefits, with cash grants could empower more entrepreneurship and less reliance on benefits. 

On the downside, Sam worries that UBI could diminish the meaning people derive from work. Work provides a purpose, and without it, she’s concerned there’s a risk of unintended consequences. The current crisis of meaning, where many struggle to find value in their work, might worsen if UBI widely replaces traditional employment. 

While A.I. taking over certain jobs could benefit the economy, Sam believes that humans will still want to “work” in the sense that creating things is in our nature.

I think that we are underestimating human creativity. There’s no limits to growth in what we can imagine ourselves creating.”

Sam Jordan

Sam suggests that we should experiment at the community or state levels to understand these risks before implementing a large-scale UBI program. 

The Future Belongs to Builders

Between the tech supercycle, dystopian sci-fi technologies coming to life, techno authoritarians with their pedal to the metal, and the overall climate of uncertainty; FTI’s work in strategic forecasting is more important than ever — not just to prevent the worst-case scenario, but to cultivate the best possible scenarios. 

“Thinking systematically about the future is important. You have to have a decision to be able to create a plan. And I think that we can do this not just with our companies, but also in our individual lives.”

Sam Jordan

As we navigate this transformative period, we need to hedge bright-eyed optimism with practical self-determinism, so that we aren’t chained to the dock when the tide comes in to lift all boats. While we as a society should experiment with creative solutions to address the potential consequences of the current supercycle, Sam encourages us all to start or continue building for ourselves — the tech titans nor will A.I. save us.

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Thank you, Sam, for joining us on this special episode of Creativity Squared. 

This show is produced and made possible by the team at PLAY Audio Agency: https://playaudioagency.com.  

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