It can be daunting to think about the future for authors and publishing when converging technologies are expanding into the realm of creativity, but there are many opportunities ahead — if you engage with the tools rather than run from them.
In this interview, Len Edgerly interviews Joanna Penn about Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Worlds: The Impact of Converging Technologies on Authors and the Publishing Industry. This episode was first broadcast on the Kindle Chronicles Podcast on 19 December 2020, used with permission from Len Edgerly.
Len Edgerly is a nonfiction author with degrees in business and poetry. He’s also the host of the long-running Kindle Chronicles Podcast, where he’s interviewed Jeff Bezos, Margaret Atwood, and Dean Koontz among many others.
Joanna Penn writes non-fiction for authors and is an award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author as J.F.Penn. She’s also an award-winning podcaster, creative entrepreneur, and international professional speaker.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
- Writing with Open-AI’s GPT-3 and why ‘centaur-writers’ might be the future
- Why authors and the publishing industry need to engage with this new technology
- You don’t need to know HTML programming to use the internet to sell books — and you don’t need to know the technical side of blockchain to understand how it could transform the industry
- How AI might be able to solve problems that are too big for humans, like health care and the environment
- How virtual reality could affect the bookselling business
- How the pandemic accelerated technological change
You can also find my previous discussion with Len in episode 505 on Changes in the Publishing Industry Over the Last Decade.
Transcript of Interview with Joanna Penn
Len Edgerly: Hi, this is Len Edgerly. Welcome to the ‘Kindle Chronicles.’ Today is Friday, December 18, 2020. I’m coming to you from Sanibel Island in Florida.
As we approach the end of a year that has taxed the resilience of any optimist, techno or otherwise, I’m pleased to bring you a full length conversation with Joanna Penn, whose latest book about artificial intelligence, blockchain, and virtual worlds, I think is a terrific jumping-off point for thinking creatively about the future for authors, readers, and the world of publishing. Let’s get right to it.
Joanna Penn writes nonfiction for authors and, as J. F. Penn, she writes thrillers and dark fantasy. Her podcast, ‘The Creative Penn’ is a weekly feast of useful information for authors and anyone interested in the written word or the future.
In the middle of the night on November 28th, here in Sanibel, I saw that Joanna had released a new Kindle book, really a long essay in Kindle format. It’s titled Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Worlds: The Impact of Converging Technologies on Authors and the Publishing Industry.
I began reading it immediately and that was a problem for getting a good night’s sleep that night because I take her view of technology in the future as being fresh, intelligent, and entertaining. I reached out to her for an interview and we spoke this Tuesday, December 15th this week connecting by Skype between here in Sanibel and her home in Bath, England.
I began by asking why she wrote Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Worlds: The Impact of Converging Technologies on Authors and the Publishing Industry
Joanna Penn: Like you, I’m into technology. I follow a lot of blogs. I’ve been reading ‘Wired’ magazine for many years. I listen to a lot of tech podcasts, so I’ve been aware of it. And on my main podcast, ‘The Creative Penn’ podcast, I share a few futurist topics in the introduction every couple of weeks just to keep people up to date on things.
And then about 18 months ago, I did a big solo show, it was about an hour, on the 9 ways I thought publishing and authors would be disrupted by AI in the next decade. And since then, so that was July 2019, I’ve been like, ‘I really must do an update on this.’
And then I think it was July 2020 or maybe May this year, as we record this, GPT-3 was released by OpenAI. And I must admit, I had a few moments of, oh, my goodness, this is such a fundamental thing. And then I took some time to process that.
Len Edgerly: And let’s say what GPT-3 is.
Joanna Penn: There’s a company called OpenAI and their essential goal is to create a general artificial intelligence which if people don’t know, we’re surrounded by narrow artificial intelligences which do specific things. But this is something that would apply in multiple domains more like a human, I guess, in different ways.
GPT-2 is a transformer technology, essentially it ingests or we could say reads, a whole load of data, and in this case, it’s written language data, and then it enables the natural language processing engine to output other text-based or language-based material.
GPT-2 was, again, sort of 18 months ago and GPT-3 is 100 times more powerful, with millions times the amount of knowledge you or I could read in a lifetime.
It doesn’t just output sentences, it can output articles, but it can also write code, it can do poetry, it can do things that people didn’t expect it to do and it’s not plagiarized. So it’s not like when you type into Google, ‘tell me how big Canterbury Cathedral is,’ or you can get Wikipedia and you can’t just copy that. What GPT-3 does is it comes up with something that is original.
The other thing that happened this year is the first AI written article was gone to copyright under a Chinese court and I’ve been engaging with the World Intellectual Property Organization, the UK government, in writing submissions on artificial intelligence and copyright.
So to try and wrap the story up, basically, this year has been this tipping point in so many ways. The pandemic has accelerated it. I’m really worried that the authors and the publishing industry are not engaging in this. Literally, it has been impossible to get people interested in talking about this and even submitting to World Intellectual Property Organization.
So in the end, we’ve just done this stuff, me and my friend, the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, Orna Ross. We’ve done these submissions ourselves despite asking a number of different organizations to be involved.
I feel that it’s a really important time in history and this is too important to leave technology to all the techie people.
We have to get involved as artists, as creatives, as rights holders, as people whose livings depend on this in the future.
To go even further, this was going to be a podcast episode but it turned into a lot bigger than just an episode and so I put it into a book. I’m really glad I did because it solidifies a moment in time, and I will do more of these things. But as you know, writing something down helps you turn your random thoughts into something more coherent. I hope you thought it was coherent.
Len Edgerly: Oh, absolutely. I think that was part of the power of it, was the clarity of it. And I was also interested because I think it’s about 60 pages, if they were on print pages. It’s basically an essay, isn’t it? It’s an essay that you wrote and were able to distribute on the Kindle platform. Is that how you think of it?
Joanna Penn: Well, it is here. Here’s the print book.
Len Edgerly: Oh, it is in print too. Good.
Len Edgerly: Actually though, because of something I read in your book on my Kindle, I had to buy a hardcopy book of the ‘1 the Road’.
Joanna Penn: I have that on my desk too.
Len Edgerly: I said, ‘There’s got to be an e-book version of this.’ I was like, ‘Well, all right,’ and the truck found me.
Joanna Penn: I’ve got another one for you. This is ‘Pharmako-AI.’ And for people listening, we’re sharing, AI Centaur wrote a book. This one, ‘Pharmako-AI,’ which is brand new, is actually written with GPT-3.
Len Edgerly: Oh, really? Wow.
Joanna Penn: The one you were holding, ‘1 the Road’ is written by an earlier edition.
Len Edgerly: And this is three years ago. I was amazed that something going this creatively into the whole space had happened in 2017.
Joanna Penn: Exactly. And I think this is what happened as well.
I don’t know if you know but the UK has a conference called FutureBook, which is obviously meant to be a future conference. I attended that and was bashing my head against my Zoom screen because it felt like they were 10 years behind. Literally, I heard a publisher say, ‘This has not been done before. Simultaneous publishing in multiple countries at the same time.’
And I’m like, ‘But I’ve been doing that myself since 2008,’ or whatever it is. And then the same week, I went to the Wired Live conference online and heard Demis Hassabis from DeepMind. I heard people from virtual worlds conference, just so many things where I was like…I found it very hard to keep these two organizations in my head at the same time going, oh, my goodness,
I’m in the middle of these. I love publishing, I love books, I’m an author, I desperately want us to move into this realm of possibility, how do I make people come along too?
Len Edgerly: It reminds me of the reaction to ebooks, 10 years ago or however many…2007, the Kindle and the slowness with which the publishing industry reacted and actually, the resistance. There was a real effort to just stop this wave, like King Canute at the shore.
It almost seems like this is a similar wave in terms of its impact. And if anything, the adoption rate is even slower than it was from e-books. You would have thought there would have been people at publishing companies who said, ‘Boy, if we had known then what we know now about e-books, we would have jumped on this thing. We wouldn’t have let Amazon completely dominate the space.’
Am I right that you’re sensing there hasn’t been a lesson learned like that in terms of the urgency of staying current with this technology on behalf of the book industry?
Joanna Penn: Yes. But then I guess I also represent people who are independent creators and this is much bigger in the music industry and the film industry, independent filmmakers, independent musicians, now independent authors.
I sell digitally globally, I sell direct, I sell e-books and audio and print and all these things, I do myself.
And if you think it’s much easier to be nimble when you’re a one-person company than is a huge conglomerate whose business model has not been threatened until 2020.
Because of course, publishers, their job, they make money by selling books to booksellers. They don’t actually make money by selling books direct to readers (at least at the moment). And most of this technology, so digital technology, e-books, for example, enabled my living to happen.
You and I as podcasters, we are enabled by technology and it gets rid of the middleman. We don’t need a radio platform. We just do our thing, right? And the same with books. You can employ freelancers as I do, editors, book cover designers.
What I see with this new wave and as you know a bit about blockchain, we can come back to it, it really does get rid of the middlemen and it’s going to disintermediate a whole load more people in the supply chain, even things, like I do payments through Stripe and PayPal and things like that, even those companies are now looking at how they’re going to use this type of blockchain and direct peer-to-peer sales because this is the way things are going to go.
What I see with publishing is it is not a very technologically savvy industry and as you say, resistant, but physical books are not going away. You and I know that. We love physical books. But equally, I want to sell globally on every device, and I want to get paid for my knowledge and this is the only way I see doing it.
Even payments in the publishing industry, it is so antiquated. How they manage, I don’t know. And so many authors who do end up auditing these platforms find issues, of course, because they’re so manual.
What I’m seeing in this next wave is just an even better way for authors, for publishers, for everyone in the book-loving supply chain to expand the wealth.
And as you know, I’m a techno-optimist, I think you are as well. And so I don’t see this as a negative, I see this as a huge positive, but we do need to make some changes.
Len Edgerly: That brings us to blockchain because as you say in your essay, in your book, the whole issue of copyright in this environment is potentially a huge bar to innovation with AI.
First of all, I’d love to hear you explain what blockchain is because I’ve tried to explain it to my family and everything. And my dad is 93 and we’ve had some just really fun conversations where I’d say, “All right, imagine a theater and everybody has a laptop and somebody on the stage says, ‘I’m buying this from Joanna for $10′ and all the laptops write it down and then it’s distributed.” I’ve heard other attempts to do it.
Do you have a way to visualize what blockchain is that would help somebody that isn’t in our space understand the significance of it?
Joanna Penn: Well, to be honest, what I do is just cut out the technical explanation because most people use the internet every day and they do not know how TCP/IP works!
Len Edgerly: Good point.
Joanna Penn: They don’t need to. We use internet banking all the time. We order stuff on Amazon or we order groceries on our phone and they arrive. You don’t have to understand how the internet works in order to use it.
What I tend to say to people is remember how it was in the ’90s or even the early 2000s when we weren’t running everything on a mobile device or we weren’t doing this, although Skype was probably one of the earlier adoptions, but remember when this wasn’t normal, when you couldn’t just do this for free over the internet. So what I say to people, because this is the big thing about blockchain, I think people confuse it with Bitcoin. So they go, ‘Oh, it’s a scam,’ and it’s like, ‘No, no.’
Think about one of those terrible websites, Bitcoin has a lot of great things going for it, but people get confused whereas it’s like, ‘Okay, Bitcoin is not the only blockchain technology.’ Yes, it’s part of it but what we’re talking about is a fundamental redesign of an architecture around the platforms that we use to run creative business.
What we’re moving into in the next decade, as you probably know, this is being put in by governments, by banks, by the infrastructure that we run society. I think Estonia digital voting blockchain. Amazon has blockchain as a service on AWS. This is not new, but it’s not mainstream yet. Most people won’t get out their phone and use a blockchain app but that’s what’s coming.
What I’m looking at now, and I think we’re on a third or fourth iteration of what people are realizing this technology can be for. So yes, it can be for payments. I just say, ‘Think about PayPal on steroids with fewer fees,’ would be one way.
And then the second thing, this smart contract idea is what truly has set my mind aflame. At the moment, we register for what is a faintly ridiculous ISBN which has no functionality whatsoever. It’s crazy. And if people say to me, ‘Joanna, can you prove that you have a copyright on your work?’ I’m like, ‘Okay, well, here’s a certificate that I got from some online place.’ And I’m like, ‘How does this actually prove that this is my copyright?’
And then for publishers they sign contracts. Everyone’s relying on paper. A lot of the time, I say to authors, ‘What does your contract say?’ And they won’t know because they signed it a decade ago and no one can find it.
The idea of smart contracts is we could decide, let’s say, with this podcast, this is a piece of intellectual property that we both co-own because we’re both co-producing it.
And what we could do is say, ‘All right, we’re going to attach a blockchain IP number to this piece of work and other people can use it in their models and train it with a British voice and an American voice and we could get a micropayment and we don’t need to be involved. We just know that it will trigger, we’ll get paid, it’s awesome.’
And so that’s exciting. And then you think, ‘What else could it do?’ It could enable, for example, management of entire intellectual property estates. One of the issues when people die is how do you manage all the disbursements or even while you’re alive?
What if I want to give 10% to charity for every sale? And if a sale is 0.5 cents all of these micropayments are what will go through.
I’m getting excited but thinking about streaming, thinking about the models of payments that are happening now, we can’t split like we used to. You cannot split an audiobook on Spotify into $1.99 or, you know, 99 cent payments, it’s a tiny, tiny micropayment for seconds listened to or whatever it is.
So we have to redesign all of this stuff for what is the architecture of the future and it has to be distributed and it has to be fair and it has to be transparent and we just don’t have that right now.
We have to trust that people are being honest.
What this does, it has the potential to make everything a lot better. Obviously, we’re going to have to migrate things onto blockchain architecture. But in my mind, this really could transform things. And for creators, for people like us who create stuff, this is very, very exciting but we have to say that it’s not there yet but it’s definitely coming because companies like Spotify, Facebook, Amazon, are having to solve this problem.
And in fact, as we speak, this week, I think its the EU Digital Services Act or something, is going through.
Len Edgerly: I saw that.
Joanna Penn: Which means that these companies have to verify the background of the stuff that is uploaded, and so they need a technological solution.
So what I would say is publishing wouldn’t do this themselves, this will be forced upon publishing. This will be forced upon people slowly, based on the changes of the ecosystem that we use to manage everything we do. And that’s the way it’s going to work basically.
Len Edgerly: When I think about the independent writer, the creator, where so much of the energy is coming from as opposed to how slow, naturally the larger organizations have to use. I think of when e-books first came out, Amazon released Kindle Direct Publishing the same day as announcing the first Kindle. And so in KDP, over time, it got easier and easier.
If you had a little bit of technical savvy, you could put your book up on KDP and in 24 hours, it’s on Amazon. And it was all sort of user-friendly.
Do you picture as this rolls out in the next 10 years, there’s some kind of a way for a person of average to maybe moderate tech-savvy to organize payments for an article they write on the blockchain? Or it’s pretty opaque now to me. I’ve bought a couple of Bitcoin at a nice price, it’s a nice investment over the last two years.
Joanna Penn: Definitely.
Len Edgerly: But it just gave me a migraine to try to think about actually going out on the blockchain to try to do that, so I just use Coinbase’s, which is one of the exchanges.
At some point, for it to really be of use to independent creators, it has to be a little more user-friendly than it seems to be right now, just to use the tool.
Joanna Penn: Absolutely. And it will be I think the same. For example, I use Stripe and PayPal. If you want to buy an e-book or an audiobook directly from me, you can go to my Payhip store at payhip.com/thecreativepenn and you can choose to pay with PayPal or Stripe.
Now you can use things that you understand so you’re quite tech-savvy but someone can use their credit card. They don’t even need a PayPal account. So you can use a credit card, you can use a PayPal account. But what happens is through the Stripe interface, the money will end up in my bank account within minutes, which is just marvelous, and most authors don’t have that because they haven’t set that up.
Now, that’s actually really easy to set up and I’m actually going to do a tutorial on how to do it next year. But what you have is all these companies, so yes, at heart, this is still a technological domain and I’m not a programmer. I’m not intending to go in and be programming anything on blockchain technology.
But what I am is someone who’s willing to try new apps. For example, this direct audio has only happened in the last couple of weeks. As I was about to press ‘publish’ on that book, I got access to BookFunnel audio app, which enables me to sell direct and have people listen in an app on their phone.
Now, that’s the type of thing that’s going to happen. Again, you don’t need to know how to code HTML to use the internet and it will be the same with blockchain, it will be the same with a lot of these AI tools.
You don’t need to be a programmer already. What you do need is a trusted curator who will tell you, ‘Go to this website and do this,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last decade anyway around the various sites. And to be fair, I actually think possibly Amazon KDP can be quite complicated. Certainly, something like Facebook advertising is terribly complicated.
Len Edgerly: That’s right.
Joanna Penn: This will actually simplify things. So just coming back to AI rather than blockchain, I now use Amazon auto advertising for my books in German which were translated by AI, edited by a human, but I use automated AI algorithm advertising because I don’t speak German.
You just tell the Amazon ad what books to advertise, you tell it your budget, and it will go and optimize that without you having to do anything. What we’re looking at, and again, this is the techno-optimism, what we want to do is use technology to optimize the things that we really don’t want to do.
I don’t want to do my accounting, I want these tools to do it for me. I don’t want to do my advertising, I hate advertising, but I know it’s the thing that you have to do but I love that the algorithm will do it for me.
I think that the AI tools, and blockchain technologies, will automate and make our lives easier so we can spend more time doing the things we enjoy which is creating
Len Edgerly: I love the idea of a techno-optimist. I know some techno-pessimists, I think I might be married to one. Is there a dialogue between people that are as positive and optimistic about this, as you and I are, and someone who, either through fear or sometimes philosophical reasons that this is just the wrong path for humanity, is fighting it?
Is there a healthy dialogue that can happen between people that are coming at this same reality of the technology from very different human perspectives?
Joanna Penn: I think you have to find your common ground. Most people don’t realize how much narrow AI is already in a lot of the things we use. For example, most people even if they’re not that technical, if they’re using the internet, they’re using Google and Google, they own DeepMind now which is the company that came up with AlphaGo.
And now, in fact, as we speak, this week, AlphaFold which came out of DeepMind solved the problem of protein folding which could revolutionize drug design. It seriously is one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in health in a very long time and this is an AI tool.
What I would say is for people who feel pessimistic, then it’s finding some common ground around what is important.
The breakthroughs in healthcare because we have focused on it during the pandemic, have been incredible. And the money that’s been poured into it, we will reap the benefits of this if we can stay alive long enough.
That’s what’s exciting and I don’t think there are many people who would say, ‘I don’t want better health care.’ The other thing I think about is the environment and certainly, Kevin Kelly has written about this. Have you read ‘Novacene’ by James Lovelock?
Len Edgerly: No. What’s the title?
Joanna Penn: Novacene by James Lovelock. James Lovelock came up with the Gaia hypothesis back in the ’70s or something, an independent scientist, brilliant guy. He’s over 100 now and his last book was like, ‘We are destroying the planet, humans deserve to die.’
And this latest book, ‘Novacene,’ he basically says that we are in such deep trouble, but the human brain cannot possibly solve these problems, but AI can. So this book is wonderful because you realize that what we’re looking at is there are so many variables that we’re looking at with the environment, with health. There are big issues that AI will help us solve in collaboration with humans pointing it in that direction.
I focus on authors and publishing but that’s my domain. But what I would say is that when people, it’s the media as well, the media will focus on some negative thing. Like the self-driving cars, I think, something else this week, I think Uber have just pulled out of this. They’re not going to go with the self-driving on their own company because one of their cars killed someone or killed the driver or something. But if you look at the tradeoffs with self-driving cars, the number of lives saved will be just dramatic and will change so many things. So we are going to have to face these tradeoffs.
And again, copyright is an interesting thing because, and what I read in some of these submissions on intellectual property, I was reading between the lines that copyright 70 years after the death of the author is holding up the data being used in these models.
If you hold up the progress, they are going to change the law and you are the ones who will lose. So that’s why I suggest in the books, that we come up with some kind of data licensing for training these models so that we can have vibrant voices from all around the world in all different languages that will go into these models.
I don’t spend every day going, ‘Yay, AI is amazing,’ but Kevin Kelly says it as well in the book, ‘The Inevitable,’ which is just fantastic, he says, ‘51% of humans, the world, everything is good and if we can just keep it on the 51%, then we’re going to be okay.’
Len Edgerly: That’s the definition of an optimist.
Joanna Penn: Exactly. But the other thing is that people, you have to engage with it. If there is something you’re scared of, then engage with it.
For example, I do think there are massive problems with ethics. I do think there are problems with some companies making way too much money even though I use those companies myself to make money. But the only way I can change that is by being involved and engaging in the situation.
I was pretty nervous about putting out this book because I don’t have a PhD in AI. My degree is in theology but I have a vested interest in this working and I’m 45 years old. I expect to be doing this for at least another half of my life.
So how can we do this to benefit the creators but also the readers, the consumers, and also, the models and the future of whatever this may be?
Len Edgerly: There’s real leverage if you get in at this point with understanding and concerns about, like you say, your segment, what matters. Let’s talk about the third piece in the title, the VR. One of the ideas that fascinated me:
You talk about a virtual reality bookstore and how that might happen. Sketch that scene. That sounds like a place I want to go to.
Joanna Penn: It’s funny because I wrote that in the future but back in 2015, when I first tried a Oculus headset. You put it on, if people don’t know, you put it on and it does cover your head enough that your visual field is going to essentially think that you’re in a real place. That’s the idea of virtual reality.
You are moving out of your physical space into a virtual space. And the technology has come on so much like the changes in optics are what now make this even better than it’s ever been. And what we’ve seen this year again, the pandemic year, is an acceleration in the adoption of these technologies in business training, gaming has been around for a while, but this is moving into other spheres.
There have been examples of musicians and various people running events in gaming platforms like Roblox, Fortnight, doing concerts, using these spaces that are essentially gaming platforms as virtual world spaces for events. And this is just awesome because it enables scale. You can have a million people at your online concert in Fortnight or Roblox which you can’t do on Zoom and you can also monetize it in a very different way.
So what I think about in terms of coming back to the bookstore, again, it’s just such a tiny example, don’t you think? We should be thinking much bigger for our domain. A physical bookstore within a virtual world.
Most of us accept a certain tradeoff in terms of the data that people know about us for targeted advertising or offers. For example, Amazon, you and I both buy a lot of books from Amazon digitally and physically. They know our preferences very well.
I also use Waterstones, and I use a loyalty card, so they know my preferences too. So let’s say I go into Waterstones for want of being more specific. I go in my virtual headset, I go to the Waterstones site, I walk in and instead of it being like most bookstores, physical bookstores, there are only certain sections I want to visit. My husband likes war books, I don’t, so I’m never going to shop in that section. So why is that whole section of the store or crafting, I’m not going to be knitting, or cozy mysteries, no, thank you.
Most of a bookstore is not targeted at you, in a physical store. But if I walk into this virtual store, it knows my history, it knows what I like and I am going to spend so much money in there. Don’t you reckon? There’s going to be all these shelves, all these shelves and I’m like, ‘Oh.’
And then as soon as I reach out, so you can reach out in the physical realm, you’re going to touch something in the virtual realm and maybe, it will open up and I can read it, I can zoom in, maybe I could watch a video with the author. And then I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll have that’ and I’ll swipe it into my shopping basket or whatever. And then it learns something about me and then it offers me more and then it offers me more.
What you’re in is a much more immersive retail space but also, this means if we met at a virtual conference, it just means the whole space can become a way to do better targeted marketing and better digital to physical retail.
Now, again, you could see this as a negative thing but in terms of publishing and book sales, it’s tremendously positive to think you cannot stock many books in a physical bookstore, even some of your really massive Barnes and Nobles, you just can’t. So the only way to do it in a personalized, super-targeted way that still engages our visual cortex, you can even do haptics now, you can do smell, you can have the old books smell if you like. Even if you’re a secondhand antiquarian bookstore, you could create your beautiful shelves like that.
I just see it as a way, instead of the online shopping experience that we have now which is a 2D screen and you click and that 2D image appears in your home as a physical book, this would actually be a much more immersive experience and I think will drive many more book sales and much more purchasing than even the physical realm because you just can’t find stuff.
Len Edgerly: What my experience of VR experimenting is I’m amazed at how easy it is to trick my mind into believing that I’m in this space, I’m looking around 360 and whether it’s a game or different things, and it’s still pretty crude.
It’s a little blurry, at least to my eyesight, it’s heavy, it makes me sweat when I wear it. But as you start thinking about it getting lighter and clearer and all of this, it already convinces most of my mind that my reality has changed. And if I think 5-10 years in the future, these kinds of experiences are just going to get so vivid. You’ll really have to pinch yourself to figure out which world you’re in.
Joanna Penn: I’m an Apple shop generally and the Apple headset is rumored to be coming and the glasses end 2021-’22. So let’s say by 2022, you’ve got whatever the first generation of Apple headset is and we both know that their strength is in design. And instead of it’s a bit like you’re wearing headphones that go over your head and I’m wearing these little earbuds. There’ll be different designs of glasses and headsets that will change the experience. Already, the latest Facebook one, The Verge, Oculus Verge or something like that…
Len Edgerly: Quest.
Joanna Penn: Oculus Quest. Quest. Yes, is already self-contained.
Len Edgerly: Yep, and it’s lighter and it’s quite nice.
Joanna Penn: Yes, it’s lighter. Even my phone and the book, these contact lenses, they’re more AR, so augmented reality, but I wore contact lenses for 20 years and I can just stick stuff in my eyes. So I’m up for that because that’s really interesting.
But what I think we’re going to see is these different experiences that people will have. I was listening to this guy speak at Wired, and I’m not a gamer, so I’m not someone who does a lot of this stuff anyway. But the way he was describing what’s going to happen in virtual worlds is that it will be another economy, that people will do their jobs in virtual worlds.
People now are sitting in Zoom and Slack from their various places that they might sit within their virtual world, office, or environment, that you and I, instead of meeting over Skype, might meet on some nice Florida beach and have a chat in our virtual space.
I think that at the moment, again, most people’s experience of this stuff is gaming. So it’s ‘Ready Player One,’ for example, the movie and its sci-fi things. But the reality is that this is moving into spaces that are around education, around workplaces.
And the other thing that’s brilliant, given some of the, especially in America, the race issues of this year, what is fascinating is that in a virtual space, you can control what you look like, what your skin color is, whether you’re even a human at all and you can control your gender or how you display yourself.
So what this guy was saying is these virtual worlds can break down the barriers that humans instinctively have wired into us around. If we’re at a conference, we see someone, we judge them, by whatever we judge them. We can’t help that. So much of it is deeply wired. But these virtual worlds will change that, and I love that. I think that’s almost magical.
Len Edgerly: It’s very freeing.
Joanna Penn: It is. Yes.
Len Edgerly: You talked about your expectation that before 2030, you’ll probably be giving a presentation in a virtual world. When you picture yourself in that setting talking about your work, will you be presenting differently because you’re not at a book show or something that we’re used to?
How do you think it’d affect the creative act of communicating with people as a speaker?
Joanna Penn: What I hope is that there will be some kind of help in the experience. Let’s just assume it is an auditorium in a virtual space so I can see the avatars of people who are there. So it’s just like a normal talk but in a virtual space. What I would like as a speaker is to be able to choose the settings. I don’t want to see bubbles coming up from people’s heads going, ‘She’s terrible,’ or ‘she’s amazing.’ That’s not what I mean but I would like to know more about my audience.
So when I normally speak, I will aim to get there early and I’ll often walk around and I’ll just say, ‘Hi, why are you here?’ And I’ll try and find some anecdotes and just to find out who’s there.
I would see that as a speaker, as an event organizer, you will be able to tailor your material so much more. I’ve spoken a lot on Zoom this year. It’s pretty awful to be honest. Most people have their cameras off, for a start, or they’ve got some image or whatever. So it’s not a nice experience. It’s effective but I don’t think it’s nice as a speaker.
What you want is the ability to get some feedback. So what you would hope in a VR space is that it’s more like a physical space and that you can see people’s reactions, perhaps find out more about them. I might have a setting that would say, ‘What genre do people write?’ Let’s say I’m doing a talk on how to write a novel. I want to see like maybe I can color code avatars…
Len Edgerly: These are the romance readers.
Joanna Penn: Yes, and there are the horror writers. And if I see that the room is mainly full of horror writers, I’m going to talk differently than if the room is full of romance writers.
I’ll tell you one of my biggest issues when I speak is how many books do people have? Because it is a very different talk that I give to an audience of writers who’ve all written over 10 books than an audience of people who’ve never even written a book. And what’s surprising at most of these conferences is a lot of the people have never even written a book whereas the people who’ve written 10 books are not sitting in the audience. They’re off writing books. So I often end up having to change what I’m talking about to kind of, not dumb it down but it’s a different level.
Len Edgerly: Make it more appropriate for them.
Joanna Penn: Yes, make the material more appropriate. And as a speaker, that’s your job, is to give the audience what they need, and you can only do that the more you know. And this is about augmented reality too, which I think is possibly even more exciting because I can see it working in my daily life.
So if I wear my nice Apple glasses, with gorgeous frames, platinum frames or something, and I’m walking around the London Book Fair, for example. A lot of my audience support me financially, they’ve either bought my books or courses, they support my Patreon, I would love a little arrow that says, ‘Here is one of your patrons.’
Len Edgerly: That would be genius.
Joanna Penn: Not just be nice to that person but this person writes this and does that or let’s say you’re looking to license your work, this person has a publishing company out of India, go and talk to that person. Conferences are a right pain to kind of find the right people.
Len Edgerly: Exchanging business cards and it’d be like speeding that whole process up. The other thing I can imagine, I’m experimenting with this Halo health band from Amazon. You could be getting a reading on the heart rate of your audience in any particular…
Joanna Penn: What talk are you giving? Is this the romance conference?!
Len Edgerly: As your enthusiasm for the future rises, I would expect the heart rate, the average heart rate, of the audience to go up a bit.
Joanna Penn: Oh, I see, yes, what your point is. I totally get what you mean. It’s actually interesting. So I’m wearing an Apple Watch and actually today in the UK, they just launched Apple Fitness, which integrates with the heart rate monitor on my watch. How cool is this?
Len Edgerly: I know.
Joanna Penn: This is totally integrating our health and you and I both love this stuff and I absolutely acknowledge that they are using my health data and I am happy for them to do that because I’m getting the benefits. And so this is where all of this stuff comes into play, is how much are we willing to share or ready to share in order for the benefits of what we will get by sharing?
The bookshop example is a good one. I would much rather share more data about my purchases so that I am offered more books that I want to buy. And that’s why Amazon does so well, because it keeps just emailing us with, ‘You want this and this and this.’ ‘Yes, please.’
I think that’s a really interesting way but what we’re talking about here, we’ve talked about loads of different domains of technology, they’re not all the same thing but what they are is what they’re calling converging technologies. And on the back of 5G, off the back of the pandemic, and adoption of digital for people who weren’t adopting digital, they’re all coming into play.
Some people have said that this pandemic year has accelerated development that would have taken 5 to 10 years, down to a sort of 18-month timeframe. That’s what’s just incredible about the speed at which things are happening and like you said, I put this book out a couple of weeks ago and already a whole load of things have changed.
For example, there’s another chapter on audiobooks narrated by AI. Now Google Play, two days ago, started selling AI-narrated audiobooks. Today, and we talked about AI-assisted translation, Alexa can now do multiple language translation on the fly. So this is not 10 years’ time, this really is starting to happen now.
Len Edgerly: I was going to ask you, the pandemic, I can sort of understand why it’s sped up the convergence and the rate of change but having set that speed, even if we get to the other side of the vaccine and we’re approaching something like normal life, perhaps late next year or early 2022, would you expect the world to breathe a sigh of relief and go back to a slower rate of technological change?
Does this become the new normal, thanks to the pandemic?
Joanna Penn: I don’t think it’s going back in the box. A lot of things were already moving fast. GPT-3, for example, being 18 months after GPT-2, and I think about it as GPT-X which are the iterations ahead of us. But so for one thing, it has changed behavior in so many ways.
For example, my mum who doesn’t like doing video now has Zoom, ‘I’m going to Zoom so and so,’ in her vocabulary. She got Netflix. She hadn’t got Netflix before, so she got Netflix. She’s 74, she’s not into tech at all and she’s started to adopt some of these things.
Then you’ve got people who have resisted, like in publishing, people who’ve resisted e-books, like not you and me clearly, but people are like, ‘Oh, I really need to read something. I guess I should try this e-book thing or this audiobook thing.’
Audiobook sales in some European countries have now overtaken e-book sales, which is just crazy and that’s going to continue. What we’re seeing is, and again, you’re in America and I’m in the UK and these are quite digitally developed economies.
I was reading about India, which is just fascinating, India went to more digital payments a couple of years ago. And in this pandemic, they have moved much more into online purchasing and things like credit cards, and stuff is starting to happen in these economies where it has not been really adopted so far.
Or another country like France which is possibly the most protective of its physical bookstores and all that. France, Spain, Italy, we’ve seen a huge growth in digital purchasing this year because people have not been able to go to a bookstore.
And so those people won’t go back. Both you and I, once we adopted e-books, yes, we still read physical books, but a large chunk of that reading does not go back. I haven’t read a physical newspaper for many years. I read three different newspapers on apps on my phone. I don’t listen to the radio, I listen to podcasts. People’s behavior is not going to go back.
People aren’t going to rush back to the office. I don’t know about there, but people are saying here that, ‘I’d like to go back to the office but not five days a week.’ So it might be three days a week, for example, or something like that but other people have moved.
I hear Las Vegas, for example, even though the entertainment economy is pretty screwed at the moment, the housing market has gone nuts because people can now live there, and they can get to San Francisco reasonably easily.
And then the other thing is that we’ve got companies like Google’s DeepMind, we’ve got OpenAI, which now has licensed GPT-3 and its other stuff to Microsoft.
What we’re starting to see is changes that are going to change this underlying architecture and that is only going to continue.
So as we mentioned, the Digital Services Act, I think it’s called that, whatever it is, the EU one, Facebook has to solve this problem, Amazon has to solve this problem. And when those companies have to solve a problem, that’s when these big changes just get pushed through regardless and then we have to jump on board.
What may happen is you might find Instagram, every photo you upload is registered on the blockchain automatically because Facebook have to know where it came from and so it’s registered to you as users. So this is an economy of trust. This will fix deep fakes, this will fix plagiarism and piracy and all these things.
It’s a huge thing but the convergence, I think, is what we need to consider. And like we talked about with how do you explain it to people, you just say, ‘Remember 1995,’ or remember what it was like when you had one of those little Nokias that wasn’t a smartphone and it was just a little Nokia, or before that when you didn’t even have a cell phone and look at how so much of our world happens on the internet.
What is the next internet? What is the next electricity? And that is going to be the blockchain, artificial intelligence. This is going to drive the next economy. And so retraining, being aware of what’s going on, taking advantage, playing, I think the attitude of play is really important and I think optimism is important too. Some things will die. Die is an unfortunate word.
For example, I was walking in Bath earlier. There’s a big department store called Debenhams. I guess it’s a bit like Macy’s or something like that. It’s gone bankrupt. It’s a department store. Department stores are pretty much over. They’re gone. That has finished. And they’ve been on our British High Street for over 100 years and they are gone and something else rises in its place. And that’s where I feel we are, which is something is rising, and let’s surf that change rather than drown in it.
Len Edgerly: I love that image. You picked that up from Kevin Kelly and I don’t think I’d seen it but when a wave comes, you can either surf it or drown in it. And it’s all timing. I do bodysurfing in waves in Maine and the difference between jumping at the right time or being too late, too early, it’s almost infinitesimal. Even as much as I’ve done it, I’ve never done anything like real surfing, but the moment you jump in, and it’s probably each person has, well, if I’m going to use this metaphor, one person doesn’t get to jump on a wave at a different time than another person. There’s only one right time to jump on a wave and get the ride.
Joanna Penn: Although I think perhaps it’s more of a tide. The tide is coming in and it will lift the boats but also if you’re kind of tied to the anchor of the old way…
Len Edgerly: That’s where you drown.
Joanna Penn: …that’s where you drown. And also, I think it can either be a pleasant experience and something that you can embrace, or you can resist it and get really wet and miserable. And I think that we have to have this attitude. Otherwise, as I said, things will be forced upon us.
A lot of people are asking me at the moment, ‘So what can I do right now?’ And I’m like, ‘Actually, there’s not much you need to do right now.’ What’s happening is that that tide is slowly creeping in and what I’m doing is saying, ‘Look at what’s coming,’ and I’m going to try and navigate it and I will talk about it, because that’s what I do. And I’ll tell you what works, what doesn’t work for me. Inevitably, I’m usually early. So if I say, it’s going to be two years it will probably be five years.
Len Edgerly: Yes, me too.
Joanna Penn: Exactly. That’s interesting with both you and I, but both you and I have also seen that podcasting that we’ve both been doing for like a decade is now huge. It’s now gone nuts. So we were a decade, were we early? Yes, we were early but we if we hadn’t have been early, we would not have the platforms that we have now and the listeners that we have now.
So being early is sometimes good. But equally, I’m a businesswoman. I’m an artist and I’m a businesswoman, and I fully intend to make really good cash out of this next wave.
I have a creative interest, I have a business interest, and I have a curious side like you.
That’s why I’m staying on top of this. I read the financial news all the time, I’m reading books about things. I feel like I need to take a next step with my own career and I need to share much more than I do currently and so that’s the way I’m going. Who knows whether we’ll be talking like this in a decade or in some virtual space.
Len Edgerly: That’s right. We get to choose which beach we want to meet on next time. This has been so much fun. I’ve been speaking with Joanna Penn, author of ‘Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, and Virtual Worlds: The Impact of Converging Technologies on Authors and the Publishing Industry.’ Thanks very much, Joanna.
Joanna Penn: Thanks for having me, Len.
Len Edgerly: Before we go, I’d like to say how renewed I felt about technology in the future after my conversation with Joanna Penn this week. I love the idea that Apple may well be the one to lead the way in designing VR headsets or glasses that finally unlock the power of new virtual worlds and I love looking forward to what pioneering authors like Joanna will create in partnership with ever more powerful language machines like GPT-3. And who knows, maybe there will be an AI partner out there who will help me to take the podcast to a new level.
I will also give up my efforts to explain how blockchain works after talking with Joanna and I’m instead going to look forward to simpler and easier ways for regular people to use and benefit from it. I highly recommend Joanna’s ‘Creative Penn’ podcast. It’s released every Monday and it’s a great mix of interviews, personal updates on her writing, and as she said, glimpses of the future that she includes I think every other week or so.
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Author: Joanna Penn