MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.
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ZOMORODI: And ask anyone to predict the future these days, they will likely decline.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: You know, I'm not going to speculate on that. I want to see what happens right now.
ANTHONY MASON: No one can forecast exactly how 2021 will unfold.
ELON MUSK: Well, I think this is one of those things that's quite difficult to predict.
FAUCI: We just can't predict that. We don't know.
ZOMORODI: For many of us, the world feels erratic, volatile. Trying to guess what will happen next seems futile unless you're Amy Webb.
AMY WEBB: I'm Amy Webb. I am the CEO of the Future Today Institute and a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business.
ZOMORODI: And, Amy, is it fair to say you're a futurist?
WEBB: I am. I'm a quantitative futurist.
ZOMORODI: Coolest job title, but can you explain what a quantitative futurist is? Do you see, like - I don't know - spreadsheets in your crystal ball?
WEBB: So futurists do not make predictions. Instead, we collect signal data. We model those data, looking for patterns and try to anticipate many plausible futures.
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ZOMORODI: Big corporations and governments use Amy's projections to prepare for all kinds of scenarios, including pandemics.
WEBB: The type of work that we do results in very big bets, you know, sometimes involving billions or multiple billions of dollars that chief executives and their teams have to place. And we want to make sure that they're prepared.
ZOMORODI: But Amy says her research into scientific innovation and technology trends, well, more just regular people need to know about them as well.
WEBB: Manoush, like you, I'm a regular person, too. And...
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WEBB: ...Here's the plight of the regular person. The problem is that we're living through this great transformation. And every one of us who's living today, we're going to have to start making some really difficult choices that impact how we spend our time and what we want our kids to do and the people that we vote for. You know, these are going to be complex decisions. And the good news is that on the horizon, there's a lot of opportunity for, you know, personal growth, for economic growth. But that opportunity comes with some serious associated risks.
ZOMORODI: So today on the show, Amy Webb talks us through four categories of innovation and explains how these inventions and ideas could upend the future of travel, wellness and what we value in the world. Amy has actually been on the show before talking about her memoir and TED Talk - both called "Data, A Love Story" - about how she hacked an online dating platform. But today, she is back to give us A Glimpse Into the Future.
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ZOMORODI: OK. So Amy, you have generously agreed to return to the show. But we are going to do something completely different. You are going to guide us through a selection of TED Talks about some of the big trends in technology. But they're very specific innovations. And you're going to help us put these innovations into context, break down the hype from the real change that could stem from them, and help us understand the impact that they might have on the way that the internet and our lives work. So lots to talk about.
WEBB: It'll be fun.
ZOMORODI: And I want to start with a category that truly does affect us all, transportation. We can't teleport yet, Amy, but we still need to move our bodies from point A to point B. And this first speaker thinks that one way we will do that is with something called the hyperloop. Josh Giegel is the CEO and co-founder of the Virgin Hyperloop. His 2021 talk is called "Super Speed, Magnetic Levitation And The Vision Behind The Hyperloop." And if you've never heard of the hyperloop - I had not - here is how he describes it.
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JOSH GIEGEL: So hyperloop is a transit system that has a vehicle called a pod inside of a tube about the same size as a subway tunnel, where we suck most but not all of the air out of it - be the equivalent of flying at about 200,000 feet of altitude. This allows us to glide at airline speeds without turbulence for a fraction of the energy consumption - about one-tenth, to be precise, of an aircraft. And that's important because we, as humans, have an innate need for speed. But this obsession with speed and volume is destroying the planet around us. In fact, in the United States, the transportation industry is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A hyperloop system can begin to change this trend before the end of the decade by transforming short haul journeys and commutes from hours to minutes.
ZOMORODI: OK. This sounds amazing. I'm levitating. I'm getting sucked through a kind of more efficient subway tunnel, essentially, but going as fast as a plane, using one-tenth of the energy that airline travel uses. Amy, tell us more about how it actually works.
WEBB: Yeah. OK. So do you remember pneumatic tubes at banks? You put your money in that little canister thing. And then it gets sucked up and delivered to the teller on the inside of the building. So this is not entirely how hyperloop works. But, you know, it gives you at least a visual.
WEBB: So imagine being inside of a very comfortable pod, a closed container, that's capable of traveling, you know, at very, very fast speeds. So if you've ever been at the bank drive-through and you've seen what that tube looks like and how fast things are going, it's kind of the same thing. So we're talking about sort of a pod that is hovering inside of a vacuum tube. And using electric propulsion, it can accelerate gradually, pick up speed and then really take off. And the pods are able to glide along the track using magnetic levitation, which is actually already in use in some train systems, just in a different way around the world - so, like, maglev trains in Japan and China, for example.
ZOMORODI: So is it kind of like a subway? Like, would there be stops along the way? What kind of travel or commute would the Hyperloop be best suited for?
WEBB: Well, you know, a lot of these plans project speeds of between 700 and 800 miles an hour.
ZOMORODI: Holy moly.
WEBB: So that's pretty fast. So by the time you get one of these things up to speed, you know, you're not going to want to make a stop every couple of blocks. So instead, this would be more of an equivalent of a - like, a round trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which would normally take 12 hours on the road but being able to do it in just one hour.
ZOMORODI: It's interesting to me that, like, what you're describing sounds really futuristic. But Josh Giegel says the idea of a hyperloop has actually been around for a while.
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GIEGEL: And 118 years ago, before the Wright brothers' first flight, the thought of humans flying was inconceivable. It was crazy, even. Yet today, we get into a plane 30,000 feet above the ground and think nothing of it.
A year after the Wright brothers' historic first flight, another inventor, an American physicist named Robert Goddard, proposed an entirely new form of transportation - the vactrain. He envisioned a high-speed mass transit system where people would travel on the ground, with little to no air resistance, inside of a tube. And today, these renderings of some of the earliest renderings what we call a hyperloop.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) The vactrain. OK, so we've been thinking about zipping our bodies around the Earth for decades. But I got to say, Amy, the newest mode of transport that I have taken recently is, like, a motorized scooter. Have we kind of been at a lull when it comes to innovating transportation? I'm not ready to sign up for Jeff Bezos's visit to the outer edge of the atmosphere. I just want to get places on the planet. And, you know, I feel like we've heard a lot about making all our cars electric, but that's not terribly futuristic. So where are we when it comes to innovating in transportation?
WEBB: You know, historically, when we think about the future of transportation, we tend to think of things in the air, not things above the ground slightly or even under the ground. And, you know, we tend to reference "The Jetsons."
WEBB: Now, when we think about transportation and the future, we tend to reference "The Jetsons" because of that scene with the flying car at the beginning, right?
ZOMORODI: Right. Yes.
WEBB: And, you know - and even if you haven't watched an episode of "The Jetsons," if somebody says Jetsons car, everybody immediately knows what you mean.
But here's what's interesting. It was 1917 when a guy named Glenn Curtiss filed a patent for an autoplane (ph), and it was a car with some wings attached to it. So it hopped in the air kind of a few times, and it never really, really flew. But every decade since then, there have been multiple flying car patents and actual flying cars that got designed.
WEBB: So the question is, why are we stuck in this vicious cycle of the future of transportation being a thing we already have that happens to be up in the air that doesn't really solve any problems?
ZOMORODI: And I - just to get back to the Hyperloop. The - not only have the plans been drawn up, but I was intrigued to hear that the - that they're testing it now with, like, real humans in it, including Josh Giegel himself. Its first ride with real passengers was in November of 2020, and here's him describing what happened.
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GIEGEL: We've created a test track in the deserts outside of Las Vegas. We've operated the system over 500 times and had countless other tests on our subsystems. So by October of 2020, we had run hundreds of tests. We had an independent safety auditor give us the green light, but still, it was nerve-wracking. And on November 8, 2020, we made our first attempt.
So at our test site, my colleague Sara and I climbed into that can-like vehicle, suspended by magnetic levitation, at a near-vacuum environment, and the countdown began. In those 15 seconds, we showed the world that what was deemed ludicrous over a hundred years ago was, in fact, possible. This is the start of a systemic change in the way we travel.
ZOMORODI: So, Amy, you've watched the video. It's pretty fun to watch because it's Josh and a colleague, like, zipping around at whatever - 700 miles per hour with their cheeks, like, flapping in the wind. They look like they're on a roller coaster ride. Is this the start of a systemic change in the way we travel? I'm not so sure I want to travel like that.
WEBB: (Laughter) Listen, I hope it is. I hope it's the start of systemic change. Why can't we be open to alternative options for the future? The real future of a hyperloop isn't necessarily people with their cheeks flapping in the wind, looking pretty uncomfortable, moving at speeds that are absolutely terrifying. This is the beginning, right? The very first plane that took flight, the very first car, the very first Sumerians who invented, millennia ago, a way to get around on a cart using horses - you know, these are technologies that - they evolve over longer periods of time. So I, for one, welcome our Hyperloop future, but it's going to take us some time to get there.
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ZOMORODI: In a minute, more glimpses into the future with Amy Webb, including looking at a new kind of bra that could change health care for women. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, A Glimpse Into the Future. We are talking to futurist Amy Webb about where science and technology are headed next, including some fascinating and unusual inventions from TED speakers. And one of the categories where Amy sees some of the most innovation is in health and wellness.
WEBB: We're looking at sort of a vast constellation of things that range from devices that connect to our personal data - so that would be a smartwatch like a Fitbit or an Apple Watch - to the onslaught of wearable devices that are coming to market - smart glasses.
WEBB: You can buy a ring that has a digital assistant and a speaker and a microphone built in that you wear on your finger that let you know if you're getting enough oxygen, wristbands that detect your emotion, your stress, your exercise habits. There are smart yoga pants that you can wear that will reveal whether or not you're doing postures correctly during the poses. So it's just all of these different devices that are collecting our data, helping us understand ourselves better and, in some cases, connecting your body directly to your physician for remote patient monitoring.
ZOMORODI: I mean, some of those sound really cool. The example that we have got in this health and wellness category is, again, an old technology updated for the digital age, something specifically for women. In 2021 engineer and entrepreneur Alicia Chong Rodriguez - she gave a talk about her invention, a smart bra for better heart health. And she started her talk by explaining that there is a big problem for women in health care right now because of the way that research is done.
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ALICIA CHONG RODRIGUEZ: Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death and disability worldwide, and for women, it is not only harder to recognize, diagnose and treat. But after a heart attack or a stroke, women also face higher mortality. There are about 44 million women living in the U.S. with heart disease, and the incidences for women under 65 are on the rise. So what's going on?
The answer lies at the intersection of two areas - data and medical devices. When I was doing cardiovascular research at MIT, I had access to huge datasets. Realizing that women were one of the largest subgroups underrepresented was eye-opening. In fact, women were basically excluded from cardiovascular clinical trials until the NIH mandated inclusion in 1993. This is why existing technologies and therapies often fall short - because most of them have been designed using data primarily from male animals and men. And as artificial intelligence helps turbocharge digital health, there's a danger that algorithms mostly trained with male data and biases will actually perpetuate the problem.
ZOMORODI: Amy, hearing Alicia explain the huge gap that exists in data about women's health simply because their data was not being collected - also, that data sounds really old. I mean, I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I was. What was your reaction?
WEBB: Well, I'm not surprised. This TED talk really resonated with me because I do a lot of long distance bike riding on the weekends. And, you know, you can buy a heart rate monitor to track your heart rate and all the metrics that you would want to be tracking. And those monitors are best when they are attached to your chest and basically, like, pretty close to your heart.
For those of you who are women who wear sports bras, you know that that is impractical. The way that sports bras are designed, the way that these chest monitors are designed - they're just - they don't work together very well. They're uncomfortable. They move around. You know, these are devices that are clearly designed for men by men. So this is a tiny, small example of a way that, as a woman, I'm being left out. And I'm somebody who desperately wants to and knows how to mine and refine my own data. There's a biometric data divide.
ZOMORODI: And it's not just women, right? I mean, I've heard of dermatologists who say that a lot of the data being collected is only on white skin and not Black skin. And therefore, new treatments are biased in some ways because not only do they not know how they work; they don't know if they work on different kinds of skin.
WEBB: That's absolutely correct. And the trick here is that as we ask artificial intelligence AI systems to play a greater role in pattern recognition and precision medicine and rapid drug discovery, unfortunately, we are making, in some cases, life and death decisions based on a very narrow dataset. And that's something that should concern everybody.
ZOMORODI: So let's go back to Alicia. Her solution to one of the problems is collecting the right data with something she calls the smart bra. Here's how it works.
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CHONG RODRIGUEZ: Our idea is to turn the everyday bra into an actual lifesaver. This is our augmented garment platform. It gives women the ability to continuously and remotely acquire physiological data. By wearing this bra, a woman can view insights and patterns and keep an automated journal in her phone, giving her a simple way to track symptoms and collect lifesaving data to share with her doctor for early detection and targeted management. It can even track the safety and efficacy of certain therapies.
We've built medical-grade textile sensors that can adapt to multiple bra styles and sizes for continuous, reliable and repeatable data all around her torso and her heart. We can track heart rhythm, breathing, temperature, posture and movement. And by applying algorithms, we can use this data to decode symptoms, articulate arrhythmia triggers and generate personalized digital biomarkers.
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ZOMORODI: What do you think of this, Amy? What do you think of her promise that this is an easy way to collect a lot of data on a personal level, but also a collective level - right? - that if you get enough women wearing these bras, then we can start to create new data sets and really understand what is happening for women and their cardiovascular health?
WEBB: Well, obviously, if you have better sources of data to start and you're able to use those data, then you're going to get better outcomes on the other side. This is the beginning of a different path. And I think that's important because, you know, we're moving into an era where algorithms are making more and more decisions about us and, in fact, optimizing our health for us on a daily basis.
And we want to make sure that we're optimizing for everybody, which means we need bigger pools of data. We need more opportunities for people to contribute data. And importantly, we need trust. Because without trust and faith in the systems that are collecting, housing and protecting these data, you know, then we create more problems down the road.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. I mean, that concerns me. Like, well, you're collecting pretty intimate data here. What are you going to do with it? Who's in charge of it? All of those things. But on the flip side, if you tell me that by wearing this, I am contributing to an anonymized set of information that could maybe get more funding for research into how to treat cardiovascular problems for women, like that's intriguing to me. I'm excited by that.
WEBB: Yeah. But again, this comes down to trust. I can give you a...
WEBB: ...Quick example of what happens when you misplace or abuse trust. So there's...
WEBB: ...A tribe that has lived in what is now Arizona for centuries, the Havasupai tribe. This tribe has had some issues with diabetes over time, and so they allowed researchers from Arizona State University in to conduct a study in 1990. And the idea was to collect health data, learn and eventually help the tribe eradicate diabetes.
But then, unbeknownst to the tribe, the researchers changed the scope of their project to encompass a lot more data; so genetic markers for alcoholism, for different disorders like schizophrenia. And the researchers went on to publish a whole bunch of papers in academic journals highlighting these results. And the articles resulted in news stories. And the news stories really reflected badly on this tribe.
They were completely, understandably, horrified and humiliated, which led to the Navajo Nation, which was the second - or, I guess, is the second largest group of indigenous people in the United States, to ban all genetic sequencing, all analysis; basically, all related research on its members. And that makes sense, right? Because nobody wants to be exploited in that way.
But that caused this other problem, which is that the pool of genetic data in the U.S. doesn't really include indigenous people. And, you know, there are similar stories that I could tell you about America's Black population, you know, about various populations in the United States. And this all goes back to trust. So I think it's a good idea that we have more, better data, but we also have to do so in a way that is traceable and accountable, and we have to be good custodians of people's personal private data.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. We need to remember that when we - remember why some people are vaccine hesitant. From what I understand, Alicia hopes to bring her smart bra to the market, like, pretty soon, actually. What are some other personal health devices that you think are going to be out there pretty soon?
WEBB: Well, I got to tell you, the thing that I'm looking forward to is a toilet.
WEBB: So this is, like, a weird turn that we're about to take, but...
ZOMORODI: Do it, Amy.
WEBB: ...Do it. So, like, in the 2010s, there was some research at Stanford University on a device that you would have in your home. So this is a smart toilet, which was outfitted with litmus strips and some pressure sensors and things. And the idea was to be able to more effectively monitor patients in living facilities, in their homes.
Now, there's actually a lot of very valuable data that you can retrieve that you, let's say, leave behind, right?
WEBB: So with one brief trip to the bathroom, we can tell a lot about you, like whether you have prostate inflammation or your blood sugar level is high or whether, you know, you've got certain inflammation in your gut. And these data tell a story about your gut health and about your overall health.
The problem is that we tend not to collect those data unless there is something wrong, when we show up at a doctor's office. Wouldn't it be awesome if we were able to collect those data every day? I mean, can you imagine knowing what your gut flora baseline is the way that you know what your normal temperature is?
ZOMORODI: Oh, I'm in.
WEBB: Yeah. That would be incredibly useful, actionable information. And then, interestingly enough, earlier this year, Toto, which is a Japanese company famous for making toilets, debuted its own wellness toilet. And this is a toilet outfitted with sensors, collection tools, you know, basically all the type of technology that you really don't want recognizing you in that particular place, you know what I mean?
ZOMORODI: So not only would it be like, wow, I should eat more sauerkraut, but also could it potentially - like, I'm thinking of last - when the pandemic began and people started - there was a collection from sewer systems and they started to be able to tell, you know, from fecal matter where there was about to be a coronavirus outbreak. Is that another way that this could be sort of collectively?
WEBB: Yeah, totally. I mean, you could pool - two things with the beginnings of the outbreak. You know, a lot of men, men of a certain age, they get a lot of prostate infections, and a prostate infection, in some ways, mirrors the symptoms of COVID-19. You get all-over body aches. You run a fever. You feel kind of achy, right? And I would imagine at the beginning of the crisis, there were probably a lot of men out there who were at the beginning stages of a prostate infection worrying that they had COVID and also probably without the ability to easily get into a doctor's office to take a test.
So a smart toilet would have alleviated, you know, some of that challenge - right? - because you would have known, oh, I've got a prostate infection. My toilet is going to connect to my local pharmacy and shoot over a prescription for Cipro, right? And that'll be that. And yeah, if we were able to anonymize and pull those data in a way that protected privacy, then yeah, we would probably have been able to track pockets of outbreak. In the future, we'll be able to track pockets of poor nutrition or areas where diabetes is starting to spike, and you'll be able to do a lot on a micro-community level.
ZOMORODI: OK. I want to switch gears now, and I want to talk about something in a realm that has largely been devoid of technological innovation. The next speaker gave a talk in 2021. Her name is Karoli Hindriks. She's an entrepreneur, and her talk is called Why The Passport Needs An Upgrade. Karoli thinks they are cumbersome, bureaucratic, essentially logistical nightmares for people who live in the global economy. And, you know, this is not a problem that she thinks is new. She started thinking about the issues that come with passports while she was growing up in Estonia under Soviet occupation.
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KAROLI HINDRIKS: Having lived in that level of darkness made me wonder why are borders and movement between countries constructed the way they are? According to the World Economic Forum, human capital is the driving force for economic growth. So why are the barriers to global mobility so high? Why is the process so time-consuming, so dreadful and taunting, so very scary? And I know it's scary because I was detained at San Francisco Airport for two hours just to get on this stage. In 2020, the World Economic Forum reported that the top three countries where the highly educated migrants came from were India, China and Philippines, which, according to 2021 Henley Passport Index, ranked among the least travel-friendly passports in the world, ranking respectively 85th, 70th and 77th out of 110. The problem starts from what we call a passport.
ZOMORODI: OK, so Karoli is wondering, why? If we need mobility to get human labor and capital to the places that need it, what is the point in making it so hard to do so? And the way that we currently track people is essentially based on nationality rather than the idea that people exist as part of an international, I guess, workforce is what she's saying.
WEBB: Yeah, I mean, if you stop and think what is a passport really - right? - it's just a number that's tied to a database. And it represents us, I guess, in a way, but it doesn't do much more than that. And most of us now are global. You know, we work in different places. We move around to different places. And the value sometimes that we place on a person and therefore their ability to move around is very much hindered by wherever that passport came from. So she absolutely has a point.
ZOMORODI: She gives another example of a highly skilled specialist from Yemen, a divorced single mother of two who's working for a Malaysian tech company. And the company wants to transfer her to their European office. But because she has a Yemeni passport, she has to fly thousands of miles back and forth multiple times, different embassies to get visas for her and her kids - I mean, clearly not good for her family, not good for the company, not good for the environment. So why does it continue to work this way if none of us like it?
WEBB: Well, we tend to keep things in motion - right? - and we don't like to make huge or big changes. The passport was first introduced as a globally required travel document during World War I, just after Henry Ford introduced affordable automobiles. And today, our passports are still pretty much the same way that they were a century ago. I think there was a flaw in the way that the passport system was built. The modern passport system was designed by a Western-centric organization.
WEBB: And it became an object for people in Western countries, but it became a burden for others.
ZOMORODI: When we come back, how Karoli wants to fix the passport problem and whether futurist Amy Webb thinks it will work. On the show today, A Glimpse Into the Future. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, glimpses into the future. We are spending the hour with futurist Amy Webb, talking about innovations that could revolutionize how we live, interact and travel.
Amy, we were just talking about how outmoded the paper passport is in a global economy. And we were hearing from entrepreneur Karoli Hindriks, who believes that digital passports are the answer. And she came to this by experience, by growing up in Estonia, a country which has put all of its citizens' information online.
WEBB: Yeah. It's really difficult to overstate just what a quantum leap Estonia has made when it comes to digitalization. You know, from creating e-passports and electronic registry systems to even creating a system like a national registry for genetic data to make it easier to run experiments in a totally ethical way, you know, Estonia is just leaps and bounds ahead of most of the rest of the world when it comes to digitalization and creating decentralized systems that are fair and equitable and serve its citizens.
Now, to be fair, Estonia is also a teeny, tiny country, very - you know, like, a few million people in north central Europe. So, you know, how that might scale in Western Europe or in a place like the United States is a little bit more complicated. But the story of Estonia and the story that she's telling is a fascinating example of an alternative future.
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HINDRIKS: One of the keys to Estonia's success in digitalization was the focus to build one digital identity for each individual that allows public and private databases to link up and operate in harmony. Estonia is going to do everything online other than get married or divorced. The digitalization saves Estonia a stack of paper as high as the Eiffel Tower every month. On top of that, the digital signature alone enables Estonia to save 2% of its GDP every year. That's a whole lot of money being wasted because public sectors are not adapting to existing technologies.
We can tackle that by creating a secure, universal digital identity where all the users need to do is upload their data and documents such as passport, marriage and education certificates into our smart system, which then converts that data into pieces that can be matched to relevant government forms in different countries. The beauty of it is the once-only rule. The user needs to add that data once, as it is then stored for the future use.
ZOMORODI: So what she means by universal identity is that all of our important information would exist online in a single system not controlled by any one country and eliminating the current bureaucracy of travel and working in other countries. But, Amy, Karoli kind of skims over the technology that would be needed to make this even possible. She refers to it as a smart system. What is that?
WEBB: Right. So she's talking about - and please stay with me as I say this - the blockchain.
ZOMORODI: Oh, that word, right?
WEBB: I know. I know. It's horrible, right? But here's what's important. We're talking about something akin to, like, a huge, public spreadsheet where anybody can write information to it. And it's authenticated, and it's accurate, and it's anonymous. So you don't know whose stuff is what. But it also can't be erased or modified. And here's why this matters - because she's talking about forums. But this is not just about forms. You know, the average person has I don't know how many passwords and documents. Manoush, when I got married, I legally changed my last name to my husband's last name.
WEBB: And I cannot begin - like, some ladies who are listening here know the apocalyptic horror of what it's like before and after you change your name. It's like I had to carry around a marriage certificate with me for a year because of, you know, trying to get on planes and, you know, waiting for this, like, cascade of correct documentation to arrive. It was horrible. I'm still me, right? I've just adopted a different last name.
So what she's talking about here is making this easier so that the set of credentials that is you - that they're stored in a place, and they can't be altered. But they can be authenticated and used by a trusted third party. We already have sort of parts of this in existence today in the form of, you know, a credit card or a bank account, things like that. What she's talking about here is something much more bigger. It's much more comprehensive. And it's part of the blockchain...
ZOMORODI: Yeah, yeah.
WEBB: ...Like a smart contract.
ZOMORODI: I mean, there are lots of things still being worked out with blockchain, like who governs it, who authenticates it. But the case that I keep thinking about is my vaccine card because right now I have this little slip of paper from Walgreens that says I've been vaccinated. And here in New York, we have an app on our phones that shows our vaccination status, but that only works here in New York City. I went to California, and they were like, cool. Can I see your piece of paper?
ZOMORODI: Anyone can fake a little piece of paper. This - in a global pandemic, don't we need a global way of tracking vaccinations?
WEBB: So something like a centralized digital ID solves a lot of these problems. And I will tell you that because the work that we do, you know, there's a lot of governments that are in progress on building singular digital identities. And I think the challenge going forward is we're going to have competing systems, which, I think, presents some new types of problems.
ZOMORODI: So we're coming in for the finish here. Most of the innovations that we've discussed so far are in testing or prototype form. They're not necessarily available to the average person. But the last thing we're going to talk about - and there are going to be people who groan when I say this...
ZOMORODI: ...And other people who say, wait, what? It's NFTs. That stands for non-fungible tokens. And this is a digital way of buying ephemeral things like artwork. Any of us can use them. And one believer in this new technology is Kayvon Tehranian. He's a technologist and entrepreneur. And his talk is called "How NFTs Are Building The Internet Of The Future."
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KAYVON TEHRANIAN: We've uploaded trillions of photos and videos and even cat memes to the internet for free. And what business model has allowed this information to be free? Advertising. Advertising is the internet's default business model, not because that's what we want, but because that's what pays the bills. Right now, the few large corporations that run the most effective ad networks control most of the value on today's internet, not the people creating its content. On today's internet, we don't get paid for the work we do with our minds. And what's more, the content we upload to these services is trapped there.
These services not only make money from our content, they control it - until NFTs. NFTs are a technological breakthrough. They offer us the opportunity to break away from that broken system. It's a certificate of ownership registered on the blockchain for everyone to see. It's not too dissimilar to the deed you get when you buy a house in the physical world. But instead of a house, an NFT denotes ownership of a file on the internet.
ZOMORODI: OK. So let's say it again. NFTs stand for non-fungible tokens. Kayvon describes it like a deed to a house. But, I mean, is it really like a deed to a house? Amy, help me out. What is the right analogy here? And I think we need to use the word blockchain again.
ZOMORODI: Lord, help us.
WEBB: All right. So non-fungible basically means that whatever it is is unique. You can't make another one, right? So a dollar bill is fungible because if you have one dollar bill, you could trade it in for another dollar bill and get the same value, unless there's extenuating circumstances like you've got an ultra-rare dollar bill or something. OK. Here's where this actually becomes practical. So if you've bought a super-expensive collectible item, like a fancy handbag, it comes with a certificate of authenticity. But there have been some problems with things that look real but aren't. Or paper certificates have a habit of getting lost.
So let's say you get your physical, fancy handbag. But in addition to that, you also get a non-fungible token, which is sort of a registration that you yourself own this particular bag, right? Now, people could take snapshots of that handbag. They could sell those handbag pictures to other people. It doesn't preclude somebody else from sharing it. But legally, you own both the object and the rights or the certificate to it. Now, let's say that you've bought a digital collectible, like a super-rare baseball card or something that happens to be a digital versus a physical one, this is an asset. It's money at rest that you can hold that may accumulate value over time if somebody else wants to purchase it from you.
ZOMORODI: And I guess it'll increase value. Like, let's say I post on my Instagram or my other social media and I'm like, look at this. This thing is cool. And lots of people are like, whoa, that digital baseball card is really beautiful. Lots of likes, lots of likes, lots of likes. So now if somebody else wants to buy it from me, the price goes up, potentially.
WEBB: Right. Volatility is a piece of that story. And that's because this is a very emotionally driven area right now. People are throwing money at NFTs. They're throwing money at all different types of new, digital assets. And the values of these things are swinging wildly.
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TEHRANIAN: Let's take an example, Nyan Cat, a wildly popular, instantly recognizable cat meme. Since it was uploaded to the internet a decade ago, it has accumulated hundreds of millions of views. And precisely because of that virality, when it was auctioned as an NFT, it sold for 300 eth - or the equivalent of over $600,000. And the person who now owns this NFT, they're not preventing anyone from liking, resharing or remixing Nyan Cat. Nyan Cat is free to travel the internet as it always has. What's different now is that as Nyan Cat's popularity continues to grow, so can the value of the NFT.
ZOMORODI: So the example that we heard was about Nyan Cat. I mean, who cares, Amy?
ZOMORODI: I'm sorry. But, like, what is the point? Why do NFTs matter?
WEBB: Well, I also don't care. But here - at least about the cat.
WEBB: But we need to update our systems, you know, whether that's how artists get compensated for their work as their work scales, or how we shop for things and how we sell things. You know, a lot of our current systems were created in the days before the internet, before, with a simple click of a button, you could mint an infinite number of copies of things. And if you're an artist and your work is suddenly shared infinite ways, you know, that work loses value. So what we're talking about here is something called provenance.
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WEBB: And that's being able to prove the origin of whatever it might be - whether it's a TED Talk or a digital copy of a fancy handbag - and making sure that the people who should be compensated are fairly compensated and that the records associated with whatever it is are also very clear and available, you know, to bring better transparency to the systems that we have.
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TEHRANIAN: Because of NFTs, Chris Torres, Nyan Cat's creator, has received direct compensation for his creation. But what's more is he'll continue to receive compensation every single time the NFT is resold. This is because of the royalty system baked into the smart contracts that govern NFTs.
NFTs are software. They can be programmed. And with something as complicated as royalties, which require enormous amounts of legal and manual labor to implement in our analog world, we can now express them in a few simple lines of code. This represents a breakthrough innovation for any industry predicated on royalty payments, such as publishing or music. And just as blogs and MP3s re-architected these industries in decades past, NFTs will catalyze their next evolution. The internet dissolved our geographic boundaries. NFTs dissolve economic boundaries.
ZOMORODI: OK, so those are some big promises, especially for a technology that many people think is just a fad, maybe even a scam, a way to get rich. I mean, Amy, there is a lot of fraud out there when it comes to cryptocurrencies, blockchain projects. But there are also a lot of believers. Is that just how innovation works - you get the dark side with the early adopters?
WEBB: So again, with everything, you know, this is the beginning of a transformation. And the trick here is to figure out what's trendy versus what's the trend, right? As a futurist, there are some rules that I use to sort of figure this out, and that represents a long-term movement into the future. You know, is an NFT meeting sort of basic human needs, and is this catalyzed by new technology? Yes, probably. Is it timely and going to persist over a long period of time? The NFT itself - probably not. But what it represents - and blockchain, that's probably here to stay. And finally, is this likely to evolve as it emerges? Because the long-term trends that matter tend not to be static.
So, you know, we think about NFT and art and collectibles. That's trendy. The real trend is evolving from our current systems, from our current ways to authenticate people and the way that we're doing contracts, to more modern systems that represent the world as it is today. And that implies new types of authorities, new types of contracts, new types of authentication. It also probably means we're looking at a whole bunch of new types of cybercrime, right? Because any time you get a technology that's helpful, people find harmful uses for it.
ZOMORODI: OK. So I think that brings me to my last question. A big part of your job, which you described earlier, is advising governments and corporations on the state of innovation. But, Amy, just remind us - like, why should we care about all this stuff? Why should we pay attention? Because it does sometimes feel like these topics - NFTs, blockchain, smart technology - they're kind of removed from our day-to-day lives. And some of them won't necessarily be ready for years to come, but I find it really exciting. So I'm just kind of curious about what you think.
WEBB: The problem is that these are tricky subjects, and sometimes they really feel inaccessible. And I know that we all have - I'm a - you know, I think you and I are both very busy parents. The last thing I want to do at the end of a workday and dealing with homework and cooking dinner and everything else is, like - now I'm supposed to have any brainpower left to, like, talk about blockchain? Are you crazy?
WEBB: That is not what I want to do right now. I want to tuck in and, like - I want to go read a book or watch "The Real Housewives."
WEBB: For real, that's like - you know. But we can't close our eyes and sleep through this great awakening that's happening around us because we have fundamental technologies coming online that are going to reshape what the rest of humanity looks like. So I totally get it, but I also really care about our futures. And we all have a stake in it.
ZOMORODI: That's Amy Webb. She's the founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute. Her new book is called "The Genesis Machine: Our Quest To Rewrite Life In The Age Of Synthetic Biology." You can see her TED Talk and all the talks that we discussed at TED.com.
Thank you so much for listening to our show today - A Glimpse Into the Future. To see hundreds more TED Talks, you can also check out the TED app.
This episode was produced by Diba Mohtasham and Harrison Vijay Tsui. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our production staff at NPR also includes Jeff Rogers, James Delahoussaye, Rachel Faulkner, Katie Monteleone, Matthew Cloutier and Fiona Geiran. Our audio engineer is Brian Jarboe. Our intern is Katherine Sypher. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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