The Challenge of Change

Star Trek’s Spock used ‘tapes’ to transport computer dataCaptains Kirk and Picard had to tell their computers the date and time of their voice logs!. Kodak dismissed Xerox (no one wants to photocopy paper). IBM trivialized Microsoft (there’s not much of a market for personal computers). Microsoft underestimated Apple… Blockbuster missed Netflix… Google didn’t foresee Facebook… Even our best science and business brains aren’t very good at predicting what’s coming from outside their ‘boxes’ (see: Unscientific Learning: Paradigm Inertia in sidebar as well as Orientation and Caveats). It’s impossible to predict the exponential effects of innovations that haven’t yet happened.

In the past few decades digital technologydigital representation, encoding, processing, and networking has spread from a small number of techies to become a world-pervasive medium that a great many of us now spend significant parts of our lives withinDigitally Mediated Relationships: INTERNET, CELL, LAN, Wi-Fi; creating, shopping, buying, selling, researching, composing, sharing, aggregating, analyzing, organizing, promoting, collaborating, dating... . Not since the evolution of speech and the invention of writing has anything had such profound implications.

Digital technology is already having a massive affect on virtually every dimension of modern human life. Consider what computerized trading, in the hands of wall street predators, did to the world economy. When used by social activists, how it helped to make the Arab Spring possible. Think of your daily life and the enjoyment and productivity technology provides you. But think also of the tens of millions of people who lost their jobs as this technology spread through factories and offices – how it made international outsourcing possible.

Now imagine the technology millions of times more powerful and permeating even more dimensions of our lives.

Billion-fold

1000 x the power at 1/1,000,000th the cost

Computers that once took up entire rooms have shrunk to the size of cellphones. In just a few decades, there’s been a billion-fold improvement (performance vs. cost) in computing power, and the rate of improvement is accelerating. In November of 2011 Intel announced a single chip processor capable of matching the performance of the most expensive supercomputers of a decade ago. Considering the trends toward ever better miniaturization and ever more powerful processing, Kurzweil’s predication of another billionfold increase in power-to-cost benefit in the next 25 years is not unlikely. But even if we reduce that number to one percent of such predictions, in the time it will take today’s kindergartners to become adults there will still be a fifty millionfold increase in the power-to-cost performance of these machines. What will the world be like when Watson’sSee: 'Jeopardy' video in sidebar descendants are millions of times more cost-efficient?

We already live in a world in which the rate and complexity of change are beyond all historic precedent. Twenty years from now, the world will be vastly different in profoundly unpredictable ways. How will the coming changes affect how we educate children? How should we educate today’s children to be ready for the coming changes?

The Mission of Education

Whatever our differences about the purposes of education, surely we can all agree that ‘preparing children for the future’ is a key element. When we educate children, we are necessarily-implicitly preparing them for the future. What we choose to teach them – what we think they should learn – reflects our predictions about what we think will serve them in the future. Yet, predicting what’s coming in the years ahead – in the time it will take for today’s kindergartners to graduate – is beyond our best economists, tech visionaries, and CEOs to project, beyond even our best science fiction writers to imagine. So how do we responsibly prepare children to succeed in a future so far beyond our abilities to predict?

Imagine the descendants of WatsonSee: 'Jeopardy' video in sidebar merging with the descendants of apps, search engines, smart phones, tablets, PCs, TVs, appliances, automobiles… Imagine the automated factories using robots to make the robots that make all those things. Imagine all of that at any where near millions of times, let alone a billion times, more powerfully cost efficient than today. (News 8-28-12: IBM  just  announced that it’s working on an app to connect Watson to your smartphone)

What should today’s children learn in order to be ready for a world in which virtually everything known about everything known is instantly available through inexpensive mobile devices? What facts should they remember? What mental skills must they have when these same devices will be able to coach them, in real-time, through learning to perform virtually any task they feel challenged by?

What kind of jobs will exist for humans? What should today’s children learn in order to be ready to compete for jobs with tomorrow’s computers and robots? In what kinds of ‘knowledge work’ jobs will humans still be able to out-perform the ROI advantages of machines? In what kinds of manual labor jobs will humans out-perform machines?

Clearly there will be ever fewer opportunities for human beings who can only perform repetitive manual labor, remember factoids, or perform routine intellectual functions. So, what can we do today to prepare today’s children for tomorrow? What is the mission of education?

“We can no longer assume that what we think children should learn
is more important than how well they can learn.”

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