Amazon turns 25 this week. Who would’ve thought back in 1994 that a tiny online bookseller might turn into a company that touches pretty much every aspect of our lives — what we buy, how we compute, how we watch movies and even get groceries.
It made us wonder: What will the next 25 years of Amazon be like? And when you ask about the future, it’s good to turn to an official futurist.
Host Molly Wood spoke with Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and author of “The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity.” Webb said Amazon’s business has gone way beyond delivering stuff to your door and will keep evolving. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Amy Webb: Once the boxes and the things that we’ve ordered arrived at our homes, the data pipeline gets shut off. If you’re suddenly now talking to all the different devices in your home (speakers, microwaves, refrigerators, medicine cabinets), that data pipeline gets turned back on. That’s important because it opens new possibilities for data collection, all kinds of additional biometric data, like what’s their emotional state? Has the cadence of their voice changed? Are they manic or are they depressed? We’re talking about a significant ecosystem, which in many ways is making our lives easier, but the ways in which that’s happening is invisible to us.
Molly Wood: Part of your job is to imagine different scenarios for how the future could go. In your most recent digital trends report, several of those scenarios hinge on regulation. What are the dangers for Amazon there?
Webb: This is not 1984, so I don’t think it’s analogous to AT&T getting broken up into Baby Bells in the 1980s. At that point we were talking about a powerful but relatively singular kind of technology. Today we’re talking about technologies that aren’t siloed, technologies that, in fact, power the other pieces and parts of the ecosystem. If you were to try to come in and breakup Amazon because you feel like Amazon has an out-sized influence, I’m not entirely sure how you could even do that. And we kind of rely on them. It’s not like the federal government has a pocket cloud, like a second cloud, sitting around waiting to get used.
Wood: Is there competition?
The challenge here is that there’s no transparency into how our data are being scraped and used.Amy Webb
Webb: Absolutely. A huge part of their business is the cloud, and Microsoft is an enormous competitor in that space. When we’re looking at e-commerce, Alibaba could pose a serious threat to Amazon. The challenge here is that there’s no transparency into how our data are being scraped and used. There’s not a lot of understanding around how decisions are being made. This is the challenge that Amazon faces over the next 25 years. How does the future of government and how does competition get fostered? And how does everybody win in an era in which our democracy and the laws that we have don’t necessarily play well with the way that our technology has evolved?
Wood: Let’s talk about the book for a second, “The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity.” There’s a lot in there about [artificial intelligence]. Of course, one of these companies is Amazon. And I wonder, do we want to keep Amazon from warping humanity? When you say warp, is that in the bad way?
Webb: Oh, it’s in the bad way. There’s no reason to sugarcoat it. The scenarios that I describe in detail are driven by data. And there’s one in which things turn out well. And there are two in which things do not turn out well, not just for Americans, but for everybody living today. There are nine companies that have an overwhelming amount of power and say over the artificial intelligence ecosystem. Three are in China, six are in the United States, and Amazon, of those six, now is probably the most powerful and perhaps even the most important. Or Amazon and Google. But we’re talking about some very big companies.
The companies themselves I don’t think are evil. And I don’t think that the people within these companies are intentionally trying to put humanity in harm’s way. I think the problem is that the systems that govern our business and their regulatory frameworks that we have relied on in the past, and the geopolitical situation, which has become tenuous — I think the problem is that technology development was left to do its own thing for many, many years and we’re now starting to see how, as we’ve rushed to commercialize some of these products and to monetize them, AI’s developmental track hasn’t necessarily been thought through with humanity and with everyday people at its core focus, at the center of all of this.
Wood: You’ve described [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos also as super smart and a person who’s good at connecting dots and building a narrative. At what point is it also Amazon’s responsibility to connect those dots and predict that and follow that same narrative and operate the business accordingly?
Webb: The point is now. It has always been Amazon’s responsibility. It has always been Google’s responsibility.
Wood: Do you see any sign that that’s happening? Or is business still the first goal?
Webb: We are in a situation where we’ve got publicly traded companies that have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders. And we have CEOs who have grand plans for the future. Money is what they need. They don’t need activist board takeovers. They don’t need problems with the markets. That will derail some of their plans. The problem is a systems-level issue. I absolutely do not buy when I hear executive-level leaders say, “We were just focused on the product. We’re just building an X.” And they are shirking next-order implications. If it’s the case that we get to a point where things went awry, it’s not because it was an accident. It’s not because nobody saw it coming. It’s very likely in these cases because somebody made a decision that prioritized speed over safety.
Wood: Also, to be fair, the ambition could be smaller. Jeff Bezos could take Amazon private and still accomplish a lot of things, but clearly not all the things that he wants to accomplish on the way to world domination. It seems like there’s sort of an inherent tension there because the God complex is overriding the responsibility to not warp humanity.
Webb: I don’t know him personally. We don’t hang out and play tennis on the weekends. I don’t know these people personally. I think you do if you are running an organization at this level. I work with a lot of CEOs and executive teams all around the world. I think if you are playing at their level, you must fit a certain psychological profile in order to achieve that kind of success. But I think again any smart person who is working on the future knows that it’s not just about finding cool, new products and services.
Anytime you are connecting those dots and looking down the road to see what the implications look like, you are inevitably looking at risk and opportunity. I think the test of a great leader and the test of a great American company that will withstand geopolitical change and will become the company that generations from now people look back on with pride, that those companies and those people are going to be the ones who modeled risk and opportunity. And when we saw risk, it was mitigated in advance. Not because it was necessarily the best financial decision, but because it was in the best interest of everybody. I’m not trying to sound like a Pollyanna, I’m trying to be realistic here. For Bezos to achieve his wildest dreams, humanity is going to have to survive in the process.
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