‘We can’t just have our heads down going forward’: A discussion with Adam Zuckerman

The Fosterly founder and futurist takes up some of the key questions surrounding how technological development could reshape society.

Adam Zuckerman.

(Courtesy photo)

This post was updated at 11:02 p.m. on 11/30/17. DC recently spoke with Adam Zuckerman, a futurist, entrepreneur and attorney about emerging trends and what businesses should look out for.

Zuckerman, 37, is the director of Ventures & Innovation at Discovery Communications, and will conduct a members-only salon discussion on Nov. 29, with IVY members at the Westin in Georgetown. He’s also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and is the founder of Fosterly, which connects entrepreneurs to events and resources to stay up-to-date on emerging trends. DC: Give us a preview of the discussion that you will lead on the 29th. What do we have to look forward to in the age of disruption?   

Zuckerman: It’s the unintended consequences of disruptive technologies and how to stay on top of them and plan for them. One of the oldest stories of disruptive technologies is what is referred to as the Cobra Effect. During British colonization in India, they realized that their soldiers were being bitten by cobras on the street, so they offered a bounty for anyone who delivered them a dead cobra. What happened was that people started bringing in dead cobras, there were less cobra bites and everybody was happy. But then a few enterprising people realized what was going on and started breeding cobras and delivering them en mass, and the British cancelled the program. So, the breeders let them out into the street and the problem got worse than when it started.

That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about with business, as you start down one path with good intentions, but you have to be prepared with those ripple effects and what can potentially happen. In modern days, if you look at Uber and how they are going to buy 24,000 SUVs from Volvo for their driverless fleet, how is that going to impact us? It’s not just people who are going to be out of work. How is it going to impact the medical industry? So, right now, the vast majority of organ donations unfortunately come from car accident victims, but if cars are no longer going to get into accidents because they are autonomous and their weight is decreased, the donor list is going to suffer. How are we going to get ahead of that?

Advertisement DC: What kinds of businesses are we talking about here?  

Zuckerman: It’s everything, all kinds of businesses, large and small. It’s a framework of what’s coming down the pipe, and the kinds of technologies that companies can utilize to improve themselves. It can range from augmented reality to virtual reality to mixed reality. Autonomous driving is going to change everything. We are going to have to reconfigure cities and we won’t need gas stations on the corners anymore.

We can’t just have our heads down going forward. You need to be thinking about your business and how you operate in life as if it was a chess game. You have to think several steps ahead, and just because what you think about doesn’t come to pass at least you are prepared, and startups are at the forefront of these technological changes. DC: You’re a futurist. What does that mean?  

Zuckerman: For me, it’s understanding what’s going to happen and building off of it. DC: What does the future look like? September 11, 2001, seems like yesterday, but it was 16 years ago. I didn’t even have a cell phone. So much has changed in our lives since then – a blink of an eye.  

Zuckerman: That’s the thing. It’s difficult to say exactly what is going to happen, and the farther out you go the harder it is to predict. But what you can say is that there are some foundational technologies that are coming that will fundamentally shift how businesses interact, how targeting happens for advertising and you have to be ready so you can stay on top of trends. It’s not okay any longer just to look forward without trying to figure out how other businesses and technologies are going to impact your company. DC: Tell us about what we should expect.  

Zuckerman: Blockchain technologies are going to significantly impact the world when they develop to maturity, and that will impact distribution ledgers, voting, mechanisms to secure your banking and decreasing times in transit. You’ve got advances in medicine where we’re going, in the next 20 years, to have pills that you can swallow that have micro-robots that will fix specific diseases. We’re going to have biomimicry, and we’ll be able to start learning how to do things from the environment around us… It’s all of these things that we need to pay attention to, and what do we do with them? Like 3D printing, manufacturing, Internet of Things, smart cities – so many things play into what our lives are going to look like. DC: What about the future of retail? Will people only shop in stores out of a sense of nostalgia? Will shopping districts look like ghost towns? 

Zuckerman: Yeah, we live in a world now where a magazine is a broken iPad for a child. If you hand a child a magazine, they start doing swipe gestures at it, because it’s just innate to them. If you look at what Alibaba did earlier this month, they made $25 billion in one day, and the vast majority of their sales came from cell phones. So, there’s no doubt that things are shifting, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t want those retail experiences, to touch and feel products. So, how do you shift that retail experience to make it unique enough to make sense and you see push back. DC: Are we talking about a greater divide between the haves and have-nots? What about second life – escaping reality?  

Zuckerman: Yeah, corporations have grown to the size where they have the equivalent power of nation states, and the second-life reality provides opportunities for learning and escapism that you will not have access to unless you are in the one percent, which control the vast majority of wealth. I think we are a ways away, though, from a true “Ready Player One” scenario. DC: Isn’t that just a horse of a different color – saying that the titans of industry will be the leaders of the world? What about the coal industry in the 19th century – aren’t we just replacing one titan with another?   

Zuckerman: No, it’s completely different. Coal gave people wealth to buy things. Technology companies today have the ability with machine learning and AI, so you can leverage economies of scale that haven’t been done before… New titans of industry have wealth, data and machine learning. That is a completely different ballgame. DC: What does this mean for the future of employment? 

Zuckerman: You can look at what Bill Gates said a month or two ago, that tech companies should [tax companies that] lay off employees and hire robots to do their work. That’s a big issue if you look at President Trump’s tax plan, because if you give companies more money to invest with lower corporate tax rates, they are likely going to invest more in automation then they are with people. That means layoffs, and the states and federal government no longer have income tax from employees while the corporate tax rate is down. So, the question is will automation result in more people buying things? DC: So, does that mean that future generations will have to have a foundational understanding in programming? Will it be a requirement in school? 

Zuckerman: Some people make that argument that programming should be viewed as a foreign language. That’s the question: What should people be studying and focusing on right now to keep them relevant in the emerging economy? A lot of people say it needs to be creative – soft skills, because that is difficult for computers, but that is changing, too. Computers are able to write music now and a host of other stuff. DC: Feels like the Terminator, like machines are going to take over.

Zuckerman: It’s possible. That is a question that a lot of people are asking. There are groups out there advocating that we should not be weaponizing robots. We are at the point that unlike never before, carbon-based life form is not evolving at the rate of silicon-based life, if you want to call computers a life form.

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