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Future crunch

Angus Hervey, Ph.D. and Tané Hunter

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With advancements in technology, people are more connected than ever before. With an overwhelming amount of information though, it can be easy to focus on bad news and fear. Hervey and Hunter discuss the way intelligence pertains to how we think and how we can use technology and information to seek inspiration and change.

Click here to find more from the 2018 Annual Meeting

Hunter: Right now, as we speak, there are six people living in space and a ruby red, electric sports car is in a millennia-long, heliocentric orbit between Earth and Mars. The rocket that launched that car was a trial run for the spaceship that’s eventually going to take us to Mars. We’re going to be an interplanetary species in this century.

Hervey: At this year’s Winter Olympics, 1,200 robots with miniature digital brains swarmed into the midnight sky to create a mile-wide image of one of our species’ universal symbols of unity, the Olympic rings.

Hunter: In the deserts of North Africa and the forests of central Mexico, we’re using laser scanners to uncover ancient lost cities, and in the inky depths below Antarctica, robot submarines are mapping underwater ice caves never seen by human eyes.

Hervey: More than 2 million diamonds are currently being tracked on blockchain, a technology that did not exist a decade ago, and machines can now translate news articles from Chinese to English with the same quality and accuracy as a person.

Since the dawn of time, language barriers have been one of the greatest hurdles to human progress—within the lifetimes of everyone here, those barriers will disappear.

Hunter: Israeli biotechnologists are transforming skin cells into human bones, and these “spare parts,” based on our own biology, are seven times stronger than our ordinary bones.

Hervey: Oh, and by the way, every single one of those stories has happened in the past three months.

Hunter: Last century’s magic is this year’s science. Good morning, MDRT.

Hervey: I’m excited to introduce you to my good friend Tané.

Hunter: And this is my great friend Gus.

Hervey: Together we are . . .

Hervey and Hunter: Future Crunch.

Hunter: So how did we end up in a world that’s changing so fast? And how did two hipster Millennials end up here on stage at MDRT sharing the latest discoveries in science and technology?

Hervey: And, most importantly, what does all of this have to do with you? Well, to answer that, we need to head back to the distant, dusty footnotes of history . . . all the way back to 1995.[visual]

Hunter: Gus, nice braces, and, oh, can we just take a closer look at that necklace? [visual]

Hervey: On opposite sides of the world—Johannesburg, South Africa, and Las Cruces, New Mexico—at almost the exact same moment, this happened. [modem sound] Anyone remember that beautiful noise? Well, it was beautiful to me. 1995 was a big year for me, because I got my first internet connection, and I got my first girlfriend!

Hunter: What was her name, Gus?

Hervey: Her name was sweetcheeks13. Yep, I met her online. I thought I’d done well. There were 16 million people on the internet in 1995, so it felt like I’d found a beautiful needle in a digital haystack.

Hunter: Today, in the year 2018, there are 5.5 billion people on the planet over the age of 14. Five billion have phones. Three billion have smartphones. And that means that more than half the world is now online and connected to the greatest information resource humanity has ever known.

Hervey: This is the most extraordinary technology uptake in human history. Never before have so many of us adopted a tool—the smartphone—so quickly, and at such scale. As we all furiously connect and tweet and post and download, we’re generating trillions of terabytes of data.

Hunter: But not only do those data flows allow for the better movement of goods, services, trade, and people; they’re valuable in their own right. Since 2015, data flows have accounted for more global GDP growth than the world’s entire physical goods trade. Data is the new oil, and everyone wants a piece of it.

Hervey: Unlike oil, though, an expensive, centralized resource, data is a lot cheaper and a lot more accessible. It’s ushered in a new form of digital globalization, one that’s leveled the playing field.

Hunter: This has given opportunities to hundreds of countries, thousands of small companies, and millions of people who’ve never been able to participate in the global economy before. So why is this stuff so disruptive? Well, to answer that, we need to introduce you to the most powerful people on the planet. The geeks!

Hervey: You see, the geeks are working with code, the thing that allows us to take data and refine it, distribute it, and, ultimately, give it value. And code is something very new. It has what we call a triple zero set of properties that make it very special.

Hunter: The first is zero marginal cost of production. Once I’ve built one piece of code, it costs me nothing to produce another that performs the same function. I can copy and paste it as many times as I like. It’s the same whether I create a million more or a billion more!

Hervey: The second is zero friction of distribution. In a world where everyone is connected, code goes anywhere. It costs me the same to send it from here to downtown LA as it does to send it to Buenos Aires or Beijing. Shipping cost—zero.

Hunter: Finally, zero latency of updating. Once a new version comes along, I instantly get access to it, and the software updates automatically. Many of your phones are updating as we speak.

Hervey: Code, in other words, is nothing like a product or a service. In fact, code is more like an idea. Because if I share an idea with you, both of us still have a copy of it.

Hunter: This triple zero set of principles is at the heart of the new communications revolution. It’s why the world’s most valuable companies are in tech—triple zero is the core of their business model. And it can be yours as well.

Hervey: But what matters for your success in the next economy isn’t the resources in here. [points to phone] It’s the resources in here. [points to head] Intelligence isn’t what you know. It’s how you think.

Hunter: Thanks to evolution, our brains are like Velcro for negative stories, but like Teflon for positive ones. Studies show that when we see bad news, it overrides higher functioning parts of the brain. We stop thinking rationally. And bad news has a physiological effect. Our stress hormones spike, our heart rate goes up, and our sweat output increases.

Hervey: But humans are also empathy machines. We’re really good at taking people’s emotions and feeling them ourselves. Fear is contagious—and on a planet that’s hyperconnected, a single, negative emotion is capable of infecting the entire population. It’s like a mind virus, which is great for media but bad for perspective.

Hunter: That’s why Ebola and Zika make headlines, but a doctor’s bad handwriting doesn’t, even though it kills more people. True story. It’s why we celebrate dangerous or scary professions, like police officers or firefighters. But we don’t celebrate nurses, even though they save more lives. And the reason they save more lives? Because they can read a doctor’s bad handwriting.

Hervey: But wait—it gets worse. Once we believe that Ebola is coming or that the robots are here to steal our jobs or whatever happens to be freaking us out, we then go out looking for more information to confirm it.

Hunter: And then, when those strong beliefs are challenged, we dig in even more. It’s a dangerous feedback loop. We get stuck in a bad news bubble, and once we’re in it, it’s hard to break out. And that’s why so many of us are fearful about the future.

Hervey: And it’s so easy to lose our sense of hope. That’s what happened to me. In 2012, I finished my Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. For more than a decade, I had devoted my time to researching the causes of one of the key issues of our time—deforestation. And where did it get me? I found myself at the end of it, spiraling into a vicious cycle of negativity. I believed humanity was doomed, and everything I saw in the news confirmed it. What we look for we often find, right? I struggled to get out of bed. I couldn’t get a job; I stopped eating, exercising, and speaking to the people who loved me.

And then, I read an article by the English journalist George Monbiot, in which he said that if the environmentalists had deliberately set out to estrange people from the living world, they could scarcely have done better.

For 40 years, we’ve been telling people that the oceans are dying, that the forests are burning, that water wars are coming, and that we’re all on a collision course with a climate change time bomb.

Hunter: Well, fear is a great way to get attention . . . but a terrible way to motivate people.

Hervey: In the immortal words of Yoda, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

So, I decided that day that I would no longer give in to fear. I made a decision to seek out stories of change, to look for the millions of people who were working to make the world a better place. Once again, you may be sitting next to one of those people right now.

And then a funny thing started to happen. By changing the way I thought, I changed the way the world looked. I started seeing the millions of solutions. I realized that the global media radar was broken—it had only been picking up the problems.

Hunter: Optimism doesn’t have to be a reaction to the world around us. It’s a choice by which we can respond.

Hervey: So what does the technological revolution look like through a new kind of lens? What would it feel like if we approached technology not from a place of fear, but from a place of optimism, wonder, and excitement?

Hunter: Well, that’s when we open ourselves to new possibilities. The good news is that you can change your newsfeed, and you can change your mind. You can choose to be scared of technology and overwhelmed by the pace of change, or you can shift your perspective and actively seek out the millions of uplifting stories that are happening right now, stories that should give us all a great deal of inspiration.

You see, it’s not just that we’re all connected, that data is the new oil, and that code creates new business models. It’s that the code is evolving. And this is where things get really exciting, because we are at the dawn of a new, artificial intelligence explosion.

Hervey: Our machines can now learn dynamically from their environment. They can see, listen, read and write, speak, and, most importantly, analyze and predict in ways we once thought impossible.

Hunter: In medicine this a godsend. Code can now look at brain scans of six-month-old babies and detect whether they are likely to have autism. Human clinicians can only figure that out when the kid turns two. Similar algorithms can diagnose Alzheimer’s nine years before doctors or spot invisible tumors on X-rays.

Hervey: Of course, pattern recognition goes well beyond images. Google has applied AI to its data centers, increasing efficiency by 15 percent and reducing costs by 40 percent, saving it hundreds of millions of dollars.

At Goldman Sachs, they built an AI system that eliminated half the steps required before conducting a big IPO. That work used to be done by highly paid analysts—now it’s done by machines. And here’s the really interesting part: The company says there’s been no impact on head count. Instead, those analysts now spend more time crafting strategy and connecting with clients.

Hunter: Studies suggest that there is $1 trillion exposed to disruption by AI worldwide in the financial service industry and is therefore up for grabs.

Hervey: In the front office, it can be used for integrating financial with software agents that can hold conversations with clients and support staff, and in the middle office, for artificial intelligence oversight, risk-management, and KYC systems. And in product manufacturing, it can be used to determine credit risk using new types of data, take insurance underwriting risk, and assess claims damage using machine vision such as windshield cracks and select investments based on alternative data combined with human judgment.

Hunter: It’s natural to wonder if we’re going to all be replaced. In my industry—for radiologists, more than anyone—they’re on the firing line. And yet here’s what Curtis Langlotz, one of the top radiologists in the world, said when asked about AI: “Artificial intelligence will not replace radiologists. Those radiologists who use artificial intelligence will replace the ones that don’t.”

The same applies to finance. If you want to stay competitive, relevant, this is an essential tool that you need to embrace. It’s no longer man versus machine. They’ve teamed up, moving us beyond discretionary and quantitative investing. This emerging “third wave” of investment managers are smaller managers taking advantage of recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, combined with an explosion in data availability, to generate alpha at a fraction of the cost of traditional managers. [visual]

Hervey: Because it’s based on code, it’s not region or country specific. It’s available to everyone. Which means, for you, there’s an incredible opportunity here. If you embrace this technology now, embrace it early; then you’ll be able to get a head start in the next economy. Most of your competitors are still trying to get their heads around digital and aren’t even thinking yet about cognitive.

Hunter: You don’t have to be a big firm to benefit. All you need is an internet connection and a bit of good old-fashioned curiosity.

This is my dad. He’s almost 70, and he’s also with us today! It turns out that an old dog can learn new tricks after all. [video]

As for me, I wasn’t always a cancer researcher. My first job was, in fact, a professional mountain biker (if you can call that a job!), until it all came crashing down (along with me) when I broke my back.

So what did I do? I took up sailing, of course! I went through epic storms, played with sharks, and the next thing I knew, I was knee-deep in a beached whale dissecting it . . . and that’s when I had an epiphany. If I could learn to read the code of life, then I could use that information to do almost anything in biology. One door closes; another one opens, right!

Now, at the hospital where I work, I use AI to scan through the code of life, DNA, to create early warning systems and astonishing new improvements on current therapies to improve patient outcomes.

Hervey: So, what does all of this mean for you here at MDRT? This is going to be the most transformational century since the dawn of humanity. Hang on tight. You’re in for the ride of your life. And the only way to navigate this explosion of possibility is to change the way we think.

Hunter: We’re just skimming the surface. We’ve got the greatest information resource humanity has ever known at our fingertips. We need to get smart about how we use it and open our minds to new ways of thinking, to prioritize learning over being right, courageous curiosity over easy cynicism.

Remember, cynicism is easy. You’re never wrong or disappointed when things go bad. By contrast, if we move beyond our negativity bias, we redraw the boundaries of what’s possible.

Hervey: This stuff doesn’t have to be naive. We can anticipate setbacks and failures, disappointments and betrayals. We can expect corruption and demand transparency. We can freely admit the profound difficulty of the tasks before us and even the possibility of complete failure. But we can also believe that our best hopes lie in an intelligent and courageous optimism, one that’s willing to confront the cynics who tell us the world can’t change.

Hunter: Science, technology, and human ingenuity provide us with the tools we need to make this world a better place. They give us intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built.

And a shared belief in a better future creates the opportunity for us to love and respect one another, to work together, and that’s an explosive force in business . . . and in life.


Angus Hervey, Ph.D., is a political economist and a journalist specializing in the impact of disruptive technologies on society. He's a co-founder of Future Crunch, and founding community manager of Random Hacks of Kindness, a global initiative to create open-source technology solutions to social challenges. He holds a doctorate in government and a master’s in international political economy from the London School of Economics, where he was also the Ralph Miliband Scholar from 2009 to 2012.


Tané Hunter is a cancer researcher, bio-informatician and science communicator. He's a co-founder of Future Crunch, as well as a data analytics startup, Lighthouse. He holds a masters in bio-informatics from the University of Melbourne, and has worked for the Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital diagnosing rare genetic diseases. He is currently completing his doctorate at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, using molecular biomarkers in DNA and leveraging artificial intelligence to improve treatments for people suffering from cancer.


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