Futurist and author Amy Webb drew mixed reactions from the packed room of international media executives at this morning’s opening session of INMA’s 2017 World Congress.

Webb’s emphatic call to action for  the news industry to get serious about the future of Artificial Intelligence drew friendly but challenging questions at the end of her keynote speech.

Amy Webb discusses the future of artificial intelligence and how news media is not prepared.
Amy Webb discusses the future of artificial intelligence and how news media is not prepared.

On the other hand, she got loud applause in the TimeCenter auditorium when she said she’d love to see every news organisation stop using social media so they could “reintroduce scarcity” and “curb the phenomenon of fake news.” 

It wasn’t clear, however, whether the applause was so much about fighting fake news or about reclaiming a reliable business model from the endless stream of digital and technological usurpations that have plagued traditional publishers.

She also suggested that some "non-profit journalism consortium... buy Twitter and... turn it into an AP or Reuters for the 21st Century."

Webb was candid at the start of her talk to the 400-plus business and editorial leaders from more than 40 countries, that she wanted to scare them into action “to start to make some solid, durable change within the industry.

“You have to radically rethink your business model. You have to radically rethink how people are getting their news,” she said. “This is not about an app. It’s not about using Amazon Echo for voice. And it’s not about redesigning your Web sites.”

What it is about, according to Webb, is how Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advancements in machine learning are fundamentally changing the way our world interacts with news and information — in the long run even more drastically than the Internet has.

“Your biggest competition is IBM, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Baidu, and Amazon,” she warned. “That’s because these are the big seven companies that are building out the future of Artificial Intelligence. And as much as news organisations would like like to think they have a seat at the table, they do not. There is not a single news organisation that is working on the future of AI. Not really.”

Anticipating the naysayers, Webb used the iPhone, Augmented Reality, and Snapchat to illustrate what happens when companies fail to “turn on the lights” and “connect the dots” to see beyond what they think they know is true.

Apple’s iPhone, even without buttons, crushed the once-dominant Blackberry mobile device. Just this week, Google successfully rolled out Google Lens, an Augmented Reality smartphone app based on the same (but now more advanced) backend as the failed Google Glass headset that many observers thought was the end of that the whole technology.

Snapchat, which most people think of as just a Millennial visual messaging app, is building a completely new revenue and advertising platform that could result in the ability for companies to buy ads triggered by visual recognition of products and objects that the system sees in Snaps.

And don’t even get Webb started on “the most fascinating patent I’ve ever read, from a company called Magic Leap, which she believes will completely change how we interact with content. It will completely and forever change it.”

Virtual Reality, on the other hand, distinct from Augmented Reality, is a pointless pursuit despite publishers’ current interest and investment, she added. The overriding lesson, she noted: "Technology never, ever develops along a linear track."

“So, I’m very, very concerned about every single person sitting in this room; because in your future I see the same story as what happened to Blackberry,” Webb said.

“News used to be a distribution model … but that’s not the way the world works anymore. News is part of a discovery model, and you are just one piece of that discovery.”

In the realm of information discovery, Webb said that connecting the dots of emergent trends and technologies leads absolutely to the dominance of artificial intelligence. That’s despite all the failed and overhyped implementations to date, such as Microsoft’s embarrassingly racist TayAI.

“Here’s what’s so important,” Webb said in advising the news industry to adopt a “rebirth” strategy: “The year 2017 is a another bridge year. This is the year that we start to move from traditional computing, to computing that involves artificial intelligence. What comes next will look nothing like where we are now.”

Webb continued: What’s happening is, language is what’s powering the future of AI. It’s spoken language. The underlying infrastructures all rely on our voices. And by talking to machines all over the world, we are training these machines to think.

“I don’t know how to drive the point home enough. We are sitting through what is about to be a cataclysmic transformation, that goes from computing as we know it today to computing as we can not quite imagine it tomorrow. And what concerns me the most is that I don’t see any news organisations taking this seriously. I see you reacting to AI very similarly to how you reacted to the advent of the Internet.

“My question to you is: How is your news organisation going to evolve once everyday people are talking to, rather than typing on, their machines?”

To help participants answer that, Webb provided a folder of resource reading.

While noting that INMA will shortly deliver a new research report on how Artificial Intelligence interacts with the news industry, congress moderator Juan Señor challenged Webb in the Q&A session, explaining that the industry has been suffering from “the next big thing” syndrome and has not been paying enough attention to business model innovation.

But Webb demurred: “That’s where we fundamentally disagree. There is a difference between what is trendy and what is a trend. What I’m asking you to do is not to follow what is trendy. I’m asking you to look far enough ahead to prepare for what is coming.