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“Synths” could industrialize GameStop-level disruption

Amy Webb, a futurist, tells finance CEOs if they are “future proofing” the biz, they are probably getting it wrong.



Amy Webb, The Future Today Institute

Most bank CEOs and COOs looking to “future proof” their business will fail because they’re only looking at what’s in front of them, on their spreadsheets – but the next challenges are more likely to be surprises.

Take synthetic media: self-learning A.I.s, chatbot-like interfaces that learn from the people it speaks with. These are real. There are marketplaces for synths. It’s just a matter of time before they’re commercialized. Having workers and customers interact from home via Zoom and the like makes it a lot easier to imagine a customer doing their banking by interacting with a synthetic person than a real one.

Synths might have interesting uses, like helping train your workforce and handle basic client requests. They could be put to work on trading floors.

They could be hacked, or programmed to be malicious, manipulating markets and investor decisions through their conversations. This may not be any different than a human operator doing the same. But a synth can be endlessly replicated. It can be industrialized.

Imagine the GameStop affair, with a zillion Reddit fans trying to execute a short squeeze against hedge funds over mediocre stocks. That was organized by an expanding roster of people. What if it were organized by one synthetic’s algo, recreating human voices, faces, and interactions – all designed to manipulate the market?

Kinda scary!

This isn’t sci-fi: there are real-world examples of criminals using synths to replicate company CEOs, to fool their colleagues into sending payments or otherwise unzipping the company’s cyber-security.

“Add A.I. to GameStop and you scale it,” said Amy Webb, founder of The Future Today Institute. She’s the one who illustrated this speculative scenario, in a recent talk she gave to the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation for its annual (virtual) meeting.

“What’s trust mean in an altered reality?” she wondered. “Banking assumes a basic level of integrity in the system.”

Futurists are fun to listen to. For the same reasons people like to watch horror flicks.

Webb is not a dystopian, but it’s in her business model to shock. Technology is moving at such a pace that this is increasingly credible.

But tech holds huge potential for the finance industry (as it always has). Take synthetic biology, using DNA as vast stores of energy that create biological computers. This is another real-life technology, still in development, that makes today’s cloud storage and computing industry look primitive. Imaging executing and processing trades using this level of computing power.

Curiosity saved the cat

Webb’s main thesis is that financial executives need to be curious, constantly reading and being open to new ideas. If they approach their job the traditional way, based on spreadsheets and financial statements, they are at risk of being left behind.

This is a truism that nonetheless seems, well, true.

“There are a lot of new issues that didn’t exist before,” she said, citing fractional-ownership models and non-fungible tokens as two recent examples. These are trends that may not impact a financial institution today. But tomorrow? Who would have thought a bunch of Reddit traders would have moved the market?

“People want a year to make plans, forecast adoption cycles, build a business model or adopt new tech around that,” she said. “They compose revenue and risk forecasts, and measure against that business forecast. But you’re operating inside of a bubble when there’s this stuff going on outside. People think they’re ‘future proof’ if they just execute on their plans, but they can’t.”

Obviously, a management team that tried to seize every signal point would be overwhelmed. But Webb urges executives to pick a few areas outside of the box that have a good chance of impacting their business in the next few years.

One is healthcare, in particular biotech. COVID-19 has obviously changed the game for everybody. But the same tech behind Moderna’s vaccine is going to have a broader impact: gene editing tools now allow us to engineer life in novel ways. We can even print DNA – literally. “In the next decade, we could have office printers that print out a treatment for when someone is sick,” she said.

Hardware is another field that is changing rapidly. Google Glasses are today regarded as a bad joke, but Webb says the tech around digitally networked glasses has advanced a lot. She thinks they will phase out mobiles.

“The movement of information, where people execute trades, will go from a screen to data overlaid in our vision, in our earphones and our wristbands,” she predicted – as just one of several examples of how advances in augmented reality and virtual reality are going to change how people perceive things.

Although it sounds like something out of a bad movie, these technologies are on the cusp of creating the next round of massive social changes. Some will flop. But others will restructure how we think, feel, and interact – and how we make decisions.

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