When Blaise Zerega joined VentureBeat, the 10-year-old tech news site, as Editor-in-Chief in January, he knew tech journalism was already a pretty full house and, often, an echo chamber for tech companies to trumpet their latest. “I surveyed the landscape and saw that everyone was covering technology now and doing it with perhaps 40 reporters,” he says. Working with far fewer journalists, Zerega started searching for ways the site could distinguish itself from other outlets, “and began looking out for emerging technologies that would give birth to narratives about private capital, public capital, technological innovation, company formation.”
Zerega has paid special attention to the rise of chatbots, and deals with the inherent contradictions: Right now, “bots” is a buzzword, but Zerega thinks the technology will become essential to our relationship with data. Here, we get his perspective on how tech, and AI in particular, will influence business.
When you're reporting, what do you get excited about? What about tech do you think is interesting to follow right now?
I got interested in tech as a journalist because I like thinking about the future and trying to anticipate and understand what's coming next. I get excited when I look at technology, not as it exists necessarily in its current form, but where it may go. Looking at a phone, I don't think of it just as a phone. I think, “What's the declining cost of storage going to do to this device? How will increased bandwidth and better GPS change how we use it and, above all, how we interact with data and services, and with each other?" Right now, I'm thinking most about smart speakers and various voice-activated devices.
In the same way that the mobile phone changed everything, voice-activated, intelligent assistance is going to really change everything. Instead of having to take your phone out, unlock it, speak to Siri (she's not going to understand you) or type something, you can just yell it out in the room: “Hey, Alexa, what year was gold discovered in California?” That changes things a lot, and not just in the way we interact with the device. Because information becomes woven into the fabric of our lives, I find myself curious about the back end that's going to be required to support that. Is it an entire city blanketed with high-bandwidth wifi? Who's going to make that?
"Information is going to become a movable feast."
It makes me think that it's not really our relationship with devices that's changing so much as our relationship with information itself. We're making information ambient. We're producing it, and somebody can collect it, but we're also trying to be able to access it in different ways.
Ambient information is a great way to conceptualize what we're describing. People are requesting information, plucking information out of the air, but people are forgetting that these devices can also monitor and watch and learn from us. That's where AI comes in. These devices are going to be learning about us, anticipating our needs, getting smarter. I'm not talking about things that raise privacy concerns, necessarily. Of course, that's tied to it, but phones now are one of the most intimate personal devices that people have. Information is going to become a movable feast. It's going to stay with you.
How do you balance the reporting of what’s happening now with the temptation to extrapolate futurist, sci-fi conclusions from that?
I think that as someone who writes, reports, thinks about technology, you always want to think about the future, but ultimately we are grounded in the news. People come to us for news, so we do deal in reality — sometimes virtual reality — but we deal with reality. What we're getting at is: why does it matter and to whom? At VentureBeat, we're thinking hard about the tech-savvy businessperson. What that means is that we want to help them make decisions. I think that's something that is often forgotten, that all valuable information is actionable. This ties into a trend of decentralization of decision-making. If you think about a hub-and-spoke model, the power gets pushed down the spoke to the rim of the wheel. Once that power's there, and I'm talking about power to distribute, to consume, to produce, to purchase, to interact with information, it never returns to the center. There are decisions that used to have to be made by a central purchasing office that are now being pushed out to not just executives, but managers and lower-level staff people. That's an empowering thing.
"All valuable information is actionable."
How do you see tech, and I think AI specifically, changing the way people do business in the next few years, or decade or so?
Dramatically. Fintech [financial technology] is an example of a burgeoning industry where you have not just startups pursuing an opportunity, but large established companies also making investments. Now you have a bona fide ecosystem springing up, and from there, that's where the innovation comes. You think about Salesforce, right? You have your dashboard. If gives you all this great information. What if that disappeared but you still had access to the information? That's smart, but it's going to get smarter as AI gets built into it, so it anticipates my needs and gives me the answers I want, without even having to ask.