Q&A with Amy Webb on Food and the Future of Health Care

Dec 9, 2021


Amy is a quantitative futurist and the CEO of the Future Today Institute, who contributed her perspectives to our Charting Disruption 2022 Outlook. This interview with Amy has been edited for length and clarity.

Starting with agriculture, what does it mean to collect data on a farm and how does this help farmers do their jobs?

Agriculture really hasn’t changed in 12,000 years. Part of the reason for that is we just didn’t have enough technology. What’s changing today is that while we have machines that can certainly assist farmers out in the field, we now have the capabilities to collect and use data: what’s happening with each individual crop, what the soil conditions are – really robust bits of information that can be used to make decisions.

We don’t really think of plants as being computable, and yet there are all different types of technologies, some within the realm of artificial intelligence but certainly also in robotics, that can now take bits of data from individual crops, mine and refine those data, and then make sense of them all offsite. So rather than needing a server farm within your actual farm, all of this is done now in the cloud.

If we can do a better job of predicting exactly, minute-by-minute what a plant might need or how a portion of a field is functioning, that’s going to give us greater certainty. That’s important for both individuals and companies that have to make financial decisions and supply chain decisions based on what’s happening in the field.

We’ve seen a lot of progress in the area of plant-based meats. It seems like the next iteration of food innovation is making real meat, but making it in a lab. How far along are we with that technology?

A lot of cultures have woken up to the idea that the supply chains for meat are expensive, not the best for our environment, starting to run up against ESG regulations in different countries, and not sustainable in the long-term. On top of everything else, we’ve got climate change to contend with, which means producing meat is going to be even more challenging going forward.

When we think about the future of synthetic proteins, which are synthesized versus created from plant material, the cost is still pretty high. It hasn’t scaled yet. But we were at the same place a decade ago when the first plant-based meat was formulated into a patty. I think it’s just going to be a matter of time before we see more and more products, chicken, beef, pork, even fish, start to hit the shelves. In the longer term, we’re talking about supply chains that shrink significantly, which also means that we don’t have to transport meat all over the world.

Lab grown meat is an incredible technological innovation, but why is it so important to the world today?

A couple of things are happening. We have a global population that’s growing and we’re going to need to feed more people. Just as there’s uncertainty created because of changing climate conditions that impacts tomatoes, the same is true with animals. We have some serious existential risks on the horizon that this technology can solve for. It’s kind of a neat area of science right now, but it may be vitally important going forward.

In addition, this technology is connected to other key areas of advancement, like vaccine research, new types of drugs, personalized medicine. Advancements in one place tend to lead to advancements in some of these other places.

Speaking of technological advancements, what are some of the use cases for AI and where are we with this technology?

So let’s take an easy one. You can describe a set of symptoms you’re having and you might be at a doctor’s office. Having an assistive technology diagnose what’s happening, or at least narrow the field of what it could be and reduce uncertainty, allows you as a patient to get the solution that you need sooner.

When we’re talking about something much more complex, like a novel coronavirus that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, AI helped to sequence the genetic structure of the virus and then to figure out different iterations of what a vaccine might look like.

If we start to think bigger and if we’re trying to solve really challenging problems, artificial intelligence can be used to simulate the problem and to start looking through a countless number of potential solutions in a very, very rapid way. It might take hundreds of scientists thousands of hours to come to a similar set of potential solutions.

Staying on the topic of healthcare technology, I think all of us have seen how a Fitbit or an Apple Watch can check your heart rate and provide other data that might be interesting individually. Is wearable technology becoming more valuable to collect data that can be used in an actual healthcare capacity?

Yes. Wearable technology is becoming a collection source for health data that you can certainly look at on your own, but also can be imported directly into an electronic health record and analyzed by a physician in real-time. It’s not just data collected from a watch, but rather a constellation of devices that are in the market today or coming to market very soon – devices that you can wear, or in some cases, devices that you simply have near you that can collect your health data as well as your behavioral data.

Tell me about some of those products. I think we’re familiar with the watches and we’ve seen the progression over the last few years, but what new devices will really be valuable to healthcare professionals?

The way that I like to describe this coming era of devices is as a bunch of things that you wear all the time that are continuously mining and refining different types of your data.

That begins with products we’re familiar with – watches. Sometime in the next two years, we’ll start to see glasses that look very similar to the ones that I’m wearing that also take your temperature and other biometric readings, every time you’re wearing them. Wristbands that detect your emotional state, your level of stress. Rings that detect your pulse.

There are also devices that you simply have near you or that you use occasionally throughout the day, like sleep technology. The data collected from your body as you’re being monitored get put into an app that can also eventually be sent out to a doctor. It’s a form of remote patient monitoring done in a way that helps you really understand what’s happening with your body.

Imagine having all of that data from all of these devices. Suddenly you have orders of magnitude more information with which to create that diagnosis, which means potentially better treatment.

Why do you think this is so important today? We’ve seen some of the challenges in the healthcare industry related to rising costs, but why do you think collecting all this wearable data is so useful?

I think the answer has to do with changing demographics. We have an enormous population in the United States that is aging, and that group of people is going to need dedicated care. Part of the problem is that we may not have the resources to manage the care for all of those people. And there’s a huge generation coming up behind them who also have medical and health needs for their stage of life. If we can figure out in advance how to diagnose and understand what’s happening with people, that cuts down on the costs associated with care later on for that older population. That helps us mitigate financial risk on the health side of things.

Let’s talk a bit about data storage. Can you discuss the notion of using DNA for data storage?

We’re creating more and more data every day. At some point, keeping those data in a place that’s climate controlled and is large enough is going to become untenable. Scientists have been trying to figure out other ways to store the data and they came up with kind of a weird solution – DNA.

Now you can think about DNA as nature’s hard drive, right? Because essentially DNA is storing genetic information. Maybe there’s a way for us to start storing information inside of a living organism, or at least the code that powers living organisms. And we’ve already started to see some really interesting use cases.

If a computer could be like a squishy blob versus a server farm that requires very specific climate control, we can store enormous amounts of data. That starts to solve a lot of infrastructure problems.

So you can store a lot more data in DNA, but what are some of the other advantages or downstream impacts of being able to store information within DNA instead of a classic hard drive?

There are some distinct advantages to storing information inside of DNA. For one, we don’t need rare earth metals which have become increasingly rare because of all the technology that we have, but also those metals are coming from places in the world that tend to be riddled with conflict. Storing information in DNA is a lot more efficient and doesn’t require quite as much energy. But again, this is one of these things that’s a little further off in the future, but could transform how we think of computers.

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Topics: Consumer Economy

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