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Arianna Huffington on the next big thing in tech: Disconnecting from it

Key Points
  • Internet entrepreneur Arianna Huffington says it is time to reevaluate our relationship with technology.
  • If individuals want to thrive in a future dominated by AI and intelligent machines, they will need to create more time and space for human relationships that foster creativity.
  • Less time on smartphones and apps, even disconnecting, will be key.

Internet entrepreneur Arianna Huffington sees a bright future for a new kind of technology — the kind that helps individuals disconnect from the damage done by the internet's first generation. And it can't come soon enough, she says, as the next generation of technology may pose an ever greater threat to our lives and jobs.

It is inevitable that artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation will take over some jobs, Huffington told CNBC in a recent email exchange, but that will place a premium on uniquely human qualities in the future labor market — creativity, compassion, empathy and complex problem-solving. That's where Huffington sees a pressing problem to solve. She says these human qualities are at risk today and the cause is — no surprise — too much technology. Her advice: Reevaluate your relationship with technology before it is too late.

Arianna Huffington speaks onstage during the "THRIVE with Arianna Huffington" panel at The Town Hall during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 28, 2016 in New York City.
Slaven Vlasic | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

"These are the very qualities that are diminished when we're burned out from being always on," Huffington said of human abilities like creativity. "One of the next frontiers in the tech world is technology that helps us disconnect from technology and create time and space to connect not with screens but with other people and with ourselves."

Self-care and wellness applications for smartphone devices have been booming. Meditation apps, like Headspace and Calm, have grown into huge successes on app stores by helping consumers manage anxiety and stress.

The National Institutes of Health funded its first study of internet addiction, focused on gaming, in 2017. (See also "Internet addiction is sweeping America, affecting millions. ")

Headspace says it reached $100 million in revenue last year and also has a product in the works seeking FDA approval. The company and its competitors also have been finding success in corporate deals to improve employee wellness.

Last year Apple introduced Screen Time to help its users — more than 1.4 billion people — manage their time on iPhones.

Many exercise and fitness apps continue to be popular, yet Calm (No. 1 overall) and Headspace (No. 3) are among the most downloaded apps in the health and fitness category, as ranked by iOS App Store and Google Play consumer spend, according to App Annie data. A recent round of fundraising for Calm valued the company at $1 billion.

While there is irony in the use of tech to manage our use of tech — and to manage the stress that may at least partially be caused by tech — the fact that mindfulness apps hold two of the top three spots in the health category speaks for itself. "The features and value proposition (access to wellness and meditation) of these apps are resonating with users," said an App Annie spokeswoman. "Users are deriving value from these features, and they are willing to pay for it, which is a huge testament to the success of both Calm and Headspace, as well as the shift in awareness and mindset."

Huffington's Thrive app has been a "very modest" performer to date, according to App Annie, though it only has been available for a short period of time.

Reclaiming our relationship with technology

The disconnect message is also on-message for Huffington's latest tech start-up effort, Thrive Global, a wellness brand. It has launched a behavior-change app with what it claims are "science-backed" microsteps, or what Huffington described as "too-small-to-fail changes that you can incorporate into your daily life right away." The app's Thrive mode allows consumers to limit notifications to a VIP list and has an app-control dashboard, which lets users examine how often they engage with specific applications on their phone.

One of the next frontiers in the tech world is technology that helps us disconnect from technology and create time and space to connect not with screens but with other people and with ourselves.
Arianna Huffington
founder and CEO of Thrive Global

Academic researchers are also beginning to analyze the benefits of disconnecting from major internet platforms, with mixed results. In a recent study conducted by Stanford University, 2,844 Facebook users deactivated their accounts for four weeks, and researchers found that while there were clear benefits to being off Facebook, there were also benefits the social network provides that were lost.

While Facebook deactivation reduced online activity across social media, it led to increased TV watching among study subjects — but also resulted in more socializing with family and friends. Although being off Facebook led to less political polarization, it also reduced factual news knowledge retained by subjects. However, subjects in the study did experience an increased subjective well-being and, once off Facebook, were less likely to return to it.

Huffington, who is an executive producer on National Geographic's new '90s tech-sector docudrama "Valley of the Boom," said the consumer relationship with technology is one of the most important issues of the modern era, and it is time to reevaluate the seeds that were planted back in the '90s during that first internet boom.

"To reclaim our relationship with technology, we need to see where we've been," Huffington said. "To take control of our tech habits, we need to understand how and why the tech world that drives those habits was built."

The tech world is responding to consumer demand and augmenting people's lives in many ways, but she still believes the worst aspect of evolving technology is a hyperconnected, always-on world.

"Even for those of us old enough to remember the first boom and to have lived through it, it's sometimes hard to remember that there was a time before we were all hyperconnected and glued to our screens. And seeing the decisions that were made that led to our current moment makes us realize we can also make decisions about how we use this technology."

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