Baltimorean, data-obsessive Amy Webb IDs tech trends that will disrupt tomorrow

How to decode business, technology, Aikido and romance? Patterns and data, says Baltimorean Amy Webb

Several years ago, Amy Webb consulted a psychologist to help her manage her emotions after her mother was diagnosed with a fatal cancer.

Webb is a futurist and Baltimore author who has just released her third book, and her commitment to data analysis and logical thinking would rival Mr. Spock's. She brought two giant binders to her first counseling session — one for her and one for her counselor. They contained spreadsheets of the major and minor moments of her life listed in chronological order and tagged with keywords ("school," "health," "achievements," "weight" and "breakups.") Webb looked for trends, mapped the data, color-coded the results and wrote an introduction.

The nonplussed psychologist handed the binder back to Webb and told her, "I think you should take this home, along with yours, and keep both in a very private place."

Really, Webb can't help herself. Deep in her innermost being, she believes that the answers to a surprising number of life's problems can be found by crunching data.

Even her past and present hobbies are about detecting underlying rhythms and amplifying hidden currents.

Webb has a first-degree black belt in Aikido, trained to become a concert-level clarinetist and speaks fluent Japanese and conversational Chinese.

"Music is all about patterns," the 42-year-old Homeland resident says, "mechanical, cognitive and aural. In Aikido, there are a limited number of moves, each with a set of potential outcomes that are determined by a finite number of variables. You just have to start connecting the dots."

"Connecting the dots" could be Webb's mantra. She has devoted her life to identifying patterns, the more subtle and elusive the better.

Earlier this month, the company that Webb founded, Future Today Institute, released its 156-page "Tech Trend Report" for 2017 listing forthcoming developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic editing and more that her team believes will forever change how people live, work and play.

That report, written for the government and Fortune 500 leaders who make up Webb's clientele, came on the heels of the December publication of Webb's third book, "The Signals Are Talking: Why Today's Fringe Is Tomorrow's Mainstream," a how-to manual to help business and government leaders identify and manage emerging technological trends. "Signals" is going into its fourth printing and is being translated into Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

"More than anything else," Webb says, "this new book reflects who I am and my purpose in life."

For Webb, no new technological development can be considered in isolation.

Consider, for instance, self-driving cars. Webb and her husband have a Tesla with self-driving capabilities.

Her Tesla naturally leads Webb to wonder who will build the internet network that will be needed when everyone owns a self-driving car, and whether that infrastructure will be publicly or privately operated. Those speculations, in turn, lead to questions about whether individual car owners will become their own private cab companies and make extra cash by renting out their vehicles during down times, and what impact that might have on existing urban bus routes, and on the stores that line those streets.

"This is one teeny, teeny tiny tip of the iceberg," Webb says.

"When leaders are trying to figure out the future, they're shackled by what they know today. Especially companies that are successful have an incredibly difficult time seeing around corners.

"One of the biggest takeaways from my book is that leaders have to pay attention to technological developments from outside their industry. A change in one sector will necessarily impact many others."

Webb is quick to say that she doesn't make predictions. Neither she nor anyone else can prophesy specific outcomes. What she can do, she says, is identify the technological equivalent of a high-pressure system forming over, say Australia, and work out potential short- and long-term impacts.

In at least one recent instance, Webb's forecast was later demonstrated to be on target to an unsettling degree.

Frances Colon, who was deputy science adviser to former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, brought Webb into the agency last year to brief high-level officials. It was Webb, Colon said, who warned that Russia had developed the ability to use internet bots to infiltrate social media in the U.S. and try to influence public opinion. It was a red flag that — if it didn't exactly foresee what happened next, came too close for comfort.

In December, the FBI and CIA concluded that Russia had hacked into the Democratic National Committee's computer system and arranged for the release of thousands of stolen emails in an attempt to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

"I'd have to wonder what part of the election if any was tied to bots," Colon said. "Russia is doing so many things out there that no one knows. But Amy definitely weighed in pretty early on the danger. Her warnings were prescient."

On paper, Webb can be intimidating. In person, she is much more approachable.

She's 5 feet 6, with a head of brown curls that resembles one of the word clouds she's so fond of drawing; each strand seems to spring every which way, but in reality conforms to an underlying style.

She has a self-deprecating sense of humor and readily admits errors in professional judgment (her team had to rewrite 40 percent of the 2017 "Tech Trend Report" after Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton was elected U.S. president).

Everyone makes an occasional misstep. And Webb, who was born in Indiana, the daughter of a teacher and store manager, demonstrated a knack for future thinking and how to monetize it even as a child. She was in the third grade when she founded her first successful business.

"When Amy was 8 years old, she knitted booties for her Cabbage Patch Kids doll," said her sister, Hilary Webb.

"Then she wrote into Crochet Monthly magazine. Amy ended up taking orders and selling her booties to the magazine's customers. I can still picture the photos of Amy and her doll that were in the magazine."

When she was in the eighth grade, Amy won a music scholarship to Indiana University. Both as a musician and later, when she was studying Aikido, she says that hard work took her to a level that eclipsed her inborn talent.

"I was never very good, she says, "but I am competitive. I just work harder than everyone else."

One example: Each night, Webb schedules the next day into 20-minute segments she refers to as "units." She weighs the relative value of each activity before determining how many units to allocate.

"We are always surprised," Hilary Webb said dryly, "with what Amy will come up with next."

That drive determined how Webb spent her teens and twenties:

She abandoned long-held plans to go to law school after calculating that she was unlikely to ever become U.S. solicitor general, the only job in the legal profession she coveted. She moved for a time to rural Japan, where she spoke not a word of Japanese, to teach English. She began writing freelance articles on Japanese popular culture for The Wall Street Journal, which eventually led to a full-time contract, a posting in Hong Kong, and a staff position with Newsweek magazine. She also earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in 2001.

Journalism provided Webb with the freedom to identify patterns that had affected important social issues. But journalism's primary emphasis is on what is happening today, and for Webb, that began to feel increasingly limited. She couldn't understand why her colleagues didn't seem to feel the same urgency she did about looming technological developments that would affect tomorrow.

In 2006, a few years after Webb left journalism, she founded the company that became Future Today Institute.

Given Webb's ironclad faith in data crunching, she didn't hesitate to apply her spreadsheets to an area that people assume is emotional, not rational, and therefore immune to extreme logic: finding a soul mate.

Webb set about manipulating the popular dating website JDate.com to not only find her perfect match, but to figure out how to market herself to outmaneuver hordes of younger, thinner, blonder women with better wardrobes who were also pursuing Prince Charming.

To determine which men she'd be most compatible with, she set up a method of scoring potential dates on 72 personality traits.

Next, she researched tactics being used by her female competitors. She created online profiles of 10 fictitious men and made flow charts detailing their biographies, personalities and preference in potato chip brands. She then kept track of her characters' interactions with 96 women.

What happened next is the subject of Webb's first book, "Data: A Love Story." It's also the subject of a TED talk Webb delivered that has been translated into 32 languages and viewed more than 5.4 million times.

And it's what inspired a UK movie production company, Pie Films, to begin turning Webb's 2013 memoir into a film, company producer Talia Kleinhendler confirmed in an email.

Webb corresponded with more than two dozen men before one — the Baltimore optometrist Brian Woolf — exceeded her threshold for a first date by scoring 850 points of a potential 1,500.

"A year and a half after that," Webb says in her TED talk, "we were traveling through Petra, Jordan, when he got down on his knee and proposed. We were married, and about a year and a half after that, our daughter, Petra, was born.

"As it turns out, there is an algorithm for love."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Amy Webb

Age: 42

Residence: Homeland

Raised: East Chicago, Indiana

Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, economics and game theory from Indiana University, 1997. Master's degree, Columbia University School of Journalism, 2001. Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, 2014-2015.

Career: Founder, Future Today Institute. Author of three books. Formerly wrote for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek.

Extracurricular: Has a first-degree black belt in Aikido. Studied classical clarinet and piano. Was a delegate on the former U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. Serves as an Emmy Award judge for interactive media. Board member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Personal: Married, with a 6-year-old daughter

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