The Shape of the Future: How to Help Tomorrow's Children Cope With a World of Accelerating Change
The world is changing, and we must change with it.
Every year, we hear of more incredible breakthroughs, which push the boundaries of our understanding further out into the realm of what was once far-fetched science fiction. In fact, our understanding of these new developments is often presented in sci-fi terms: the 3-D printer is Star Trek's replicator; Minority Report presaged responsive advertising and biohacking; Star Wars' hologram videos are already in development; and in hundreds of other sci-fi books and films written years ago you'll find echoes of what's happening right now. But this strange new world will create strange new challenges. We may be the ones who set that world in motion, but it's tomorrow's children -- our children and grandchildren -- who will ultimately build it.
What sort of future will we shape for them, and how will we teach them to handle it? For thousands of years, the answer was simple. Your life looked much like your parents', and your children's lives looked much like yours. The world you shaped looked like the world you inherited, but the Industrial Revolution changed that, and the digital revolution continues to shatter the similarities between one generation's growth and the next. Tomorrow's children will become tomorrow's adults in a world where the sort of life taken for granted over the past half-century -- school until you're 18 (or 21, or 25...), a decent job at a living wage, and a retirement supported by pensions and Social Security -- will become as archaic as a nation of farmers is today.
You might be tempted to reject the notion of a future that looks radically different from our present, but recent history offers more than enough evidence of dramatic change from one generation to the next. Someone born in 1800 might have lived to see their children become the first to travel on machines -- the locomotive or the steamship -- but someone born in 1900 might have lived to see their children travel further in an aircraft in one day than their parents traveled in a decade. Optimists may be wrong on the particulars in the short run, and occasionally wrong on the big picture as well, but techno-pessimists who say that something will never happen put no time limit on being proven wrong. As it turns out, the time between a pessimistic prediction and a dramatic technological breakthrough -- or simply to the maturation of an early stage technology -- is short enough that those who weighed against progress were still alive to find out how wrong they were.
- "A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth's atmosphere." -- The New York Times , 1920.
The first rocket to accomplish this "impossible" feat was the German V-2 in 1944 , and the first American rocket to leave Earth's atmosphere went up two years later, in 1946 . The Times did not retract its claim until 1969, as Apollo 11 roared toward the Moon.
- "Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia." -- Early science writer Dr. Dionysius Larder , 1828 .
At this time, rail travel typically topped out at about 15 miles per hour . Passenger locomotives first reached speeds of 60 miles per hour by 1848, and first broke the 100-miles-per-hour mark in 1893.
- "There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom." -- Robert Millikan , winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in physics, 1928.
German chemist Otto Hahn was the first to split a uranium atom, by bombarding it with neutrons in experiments beginning in 1934. The first controlled self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place underneath a field at the University of Chicago, under the direction of Enrico Fermi, in 1942.
- "The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty -- a fad." -- President of the Michigan Savings Bank, to Ford investor and inaugural chairman Horace Rackham , 1903.
Some 11,000 automobiles were built in 1903 . A decade later, the industry built over 370,000 vehicles . By 1924, Ford dominated the auto industry, producing 1.7 million out of an estimated 3.6 million vehicles. Rackham sold his shares back to Henry Ford in 1919 for $12.5 million (roughly $300 million today), netting a 250,000% gain on his initial $5,000 investment.
- "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." -- Scottish mathematician and creator of the Kelvin temperature scale William Thomson, Lord Kelvin , 1895.
The Wright Brothers completed their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk a mere eight years later, in 1903.
- "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." -- Ken Olsen , founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977 .
The "big three" of the first personal computing era all went on sale in 1977. Over 700,000 personal computers were sold in 1980 , and by 1987 annual sales surpassed nine million machines. By the time Olsen retired from DEC in 1992, nearly 65 million personal computers were in use in the United States alone.
A number of people undoubtedly believed all of these things at one time or another. The failure of their vision shows the limit of much human thinking, which says I cannot see it happening, and so it can never happen. Cave-dwelling nomads never imagined cities and fields of grain when they struck the first spark of a controlled fire. Medieval peasants in their fields, toiling near the shadow of a windmill, couldn't believe that their descendants might one day fly thousands of feet overhead and hold the knowledge of the world in the palm of their hands. Even today, something even more incredible waits just beyond the limit of our own vision, which now encompasses possibilities so powerful that any other generation might view them as the works of a god on Earth.
The march of progress has been strong for over two centuries now, lifting billions out of a hardscrabble life largely indistinguishable from that of the first farmers. But technology also steadily improved before the Industrial Revolution, though at a rate slower than might be appreciated by those living in earlier times. Why has it taken so long to get to the point where we now take progress for granted? It's because progress accelerates. It took hundreds of thousands of years to get from fire to the farm, but only a few thousand years more to get from the farm to the aqueduct. Major leaps forward took less and less time. Aqueduct gave way to cannon, which gave way to printing press, which gave way to steam engine, which gave way to telegraph. Progress accelerates because it proceeds at an exponential rate. This is what the progress of human technology looks like on a timeline that stretches back to the dawn of man :
On this timeline, you wouldn't even be able to see the development of the earliest modern computer. ENIAC wouldn't show up until midway through the light blue bar that marks the beginning a 90-year-old life. That bar shrinks to a sliver on the span of recorded history, and disappears completely on the bar marking the existence of modern humans.
Many people once looked at their era's progress and expected it to continue onward in a linear fashion, but this is not what has actually happened in the course of technological development, as we've already seen, and it's not what we should expect in the lives of tomorrow's children. Technology often improves exponentially, and the difference between linear and exponential is stark: linear growth adds one penny to a pile of pennies every day, but exponential growth doubles the number of pennies added to the pile each day. With linear growth, you become a millionaire in about 274,000 years. With exponential growth, you become a millionaire in 27 days and a trillionaire in less than two months. Even if you start with a pile of a million pennies on the linear side and begin with fractions on the exponential side, the latter is destined to eclipse the former before too long. It's the difference between perpetual poverty and imminent abundance.
Your smartphone is a perfect example of exponential growth. It is millions of times more powerful than ENIAC, which was built during World War II to help the U.S. military figure out how to kill its enemies more efficiently. It was able to perform roughly 5,000 operations per second . If computing technology had improved in a linear fashion after ENIAC, our computers would be able to perform about 350,000 operations per second today, with 5,000 more operations possible with each subsequent year's progress. However, a high-end smartphone built about seven decades after ENIAC can instead perform 12 billion operations per second. High-end PC processors can perform nearly ten times as many operations per second as most smartphones.
When you consider the cost and the accessibility of that smartphone's computing power relative to ENIAC, it looks even more impressive. ENIAC cost about $500,000 to build, which in our time would be equal to $6 million . A basic model of the aforementioned smartphone costs you about $200 . That's a 99.99% reduction in price to get 2.4 million times the processing power. There's not much of a point graphing the change between the two technologies, because on virtually every method you wouldn't be able to see one of them.
Exponential growth in technology has been so well-observed for so many years that none but the most pessimistic prognosticators predict that progress will slow. We are (almost) all futurists, in a way. That doesn't necessarily mean that flying cars are imminent, since a safe and efficient transportation network of personal aircraft would involve more complex considerations than just sticking a turbine on the back of a Volkswagen. Predictions often fall into the trap of confusing the possible with the feasible, and the feasible with the inevitable. We could build flying cars, but since earth-bound cars result in nearly 11 million accidents every year in the United States alone, would we really want to add a third dimension to our daily commutes? In other ways, predictions of the future often fail to consider alternate possibilities. We might all have flying cars when we automate all of them to ensure that we never run into any lousy fliers on our way to work, but we might also not need flying cars at all because the technology for virtual realities will have given us the ability to be anywhere we want without having to leave the house.
What we're about to do is not to imagine a future that will be, but one that might be, based on our understanding of technology today. We may find that we've underestimated the explosive change to come, but , but we can only look forward with the knowledge we have today. The shape of the future cannot be known with exact precision, but we can perhaps trace its outline with the rough tools now available. In time, tomorrow's children will fill in that shape with what they've learned, and it's up to us to make sure they have the right tools for the task.
To help us trace that outline, we will draw on the knowledge of several noted futurists with diverse specialties:
Award-winning science fiction novelist Charles Stross, whose work often focuses on the long-term consequences of accelerating technological improvement. His novel Accelerando is most closely aligned with our investigation today, but Rule 34 and Singularity Sky also offer readers some eye-opening visions of an accelerating future.
Software executive Martin Ford, whose book The Lights in the Tunnel examines a future where much of the economy has been automated. Published in 2009 at the low point of the Great Recession, this book examines the economic outcomes of many of the possibilities we'll discuss here.
Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, founder of the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation and one of the foremost anti-aging theorists. His book Ending Aging explores the worldwide effort to stop the only disease with a guaranteed 100% mortality rate. We'll explore some of the possible social and economic impacts on tomorrow's children should this effort succeed in later segments.
Technology writer and theorist Michael Chorost, whose experiences overcoming hearing loss with a cochlear implant helped inform World Wide Mind, an exploration of a world where computers are as much a part of the human body as hands or feet. As a scientist and as a modern-day "cyborg," Chorost is uniquely qualified to investigate the social issues that might arise from this merger of man and machine.
Professor Andrew McAfee, whose work at MIT's Center for Digital Business informed Race Against the Machine -- coauthored with fellow professor and CDB director Erik Brynjolfsson -- an examination of the impact of technology on the workforce and society . McAfee is a prolific writer and speaker on both the causes of and solutions to a more automated world, and as a longtime educator, he also brings authority to any examination of tomorrow's education reforms and improvements. McAfee and Brynjolfsson's second book on an increasingly automated future, The Second Machine Age, will be published in early 2014.
Inventor, entrepreneur, and eminent futurist Ray Kurzweil, whose books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near are perhaps the most well-known texts on the outcome of accelerating change. Kurzweil has been one of the world's leading futurists for over two decades, and also boasts a long record of technological achievement and business success dating back to his childhood. His research into accelerating change has greatly informed this and many other discussions of future progress. Kurzweil became Google's director of engineering at the end of 2012, and in this role he will help the company develop the most advanced technology in the world -- no modest responsibility in a company that's already produced self-driving cars and augmented-reality glasses and which recently waded into the challenge of radically extending human lifespans .
You'll find their thoughts throughout this article, helping to add depth, color, and shape to the outline of possible futures awaiting tomorrow's children. Nothing is certain, and we may not be able to imagine what tomorrow brings, but we can begin to prepare for its possibilities today.
2015: The foundations for success
"Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances." -- Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh
Right from the start, tomorrow's children will enter a world where their success will be primarily shaped by two attitudes: their attitudes toward technology, and their attitudes toward money. These are far from the only attitudes that will shape the success of tomorrow's children, but without technology and without money, society as we know it would be impossible. Even if our children choose to live their lives by other principles, the guiding forces of technology and money will ultimately affect the outcomes of their major life decisions at a very basic level. Developing the right attitudes in tomorrow's children toward these forces -- as we all were once guided by our parents -- will be critical to their long-term success. But what are the right attitudes to adopt? There's no one answer that will work for all children, but in a fast-moving future, a willingness to adapt will provide greater opportunity than an unbending ideology.
The sensible response to accelerating change ought to be that we should provide our children with the knowledge they'll need to properly command tomorrow's technologies from an early age, so that they'll be well-prepared to master tomorrow's jobs and control tomorrow's machines. Children of Luddites will either find it impossible to thrive with their parents' reactionary toolsets, or they'll be belatedly forced to move forward and adapt to the reality of change with a more limited range of useful skills. Since change keeps moving faster, the longer one waits to move forward with it, the harder it will be to succeed in the world built by that change.
But simply accepting the inevitability of technological progress won't be enough for our children to truly thrive. Nearly everyone today embraces new technology as its benefits become clear, but a surprisingly small number of young people gain any real fluency in the technologies that shape so much of our lives. We wouldn't call a child an expert at engine repair if all they know how to do is smack a carburetor with a rock, and yet the notion that children must be technology experts simply because they spend so much of their lives surrounded by technology continues to be as pervasive today as it was when children actually were on the cutting edge of technology, during the far rougher-edged times of the 70s and 80s .
Simply using an iPhone from morning to night does not make someone knowledgeable about computing systems, and we should neither assume that it does nor attempt to step in to solve basic problems for tomorrow's children when problems inevitably arise. This demands the development of lifelong inquisitiveness in tomorrow's children -- an important quality in someone trying to navigate a world where technology is improved on at ever-faster rates.
Everyone doesn't need to be a computer programmer, but everyone should have a basic understanding of how computers work. Few people are mechanics, after all, but when something goes wrong with a car, its owner should at least understand the need for repair. And unlike the gap between ordinary drivers and mechanics, the difference between basic competency and true fluency can often be measured in terms of millions or billions of dollars -- the person using Instagram might entertain their friends with cleverly filtered pictures, but the people who built Instagram got a billion-dollar buyout. The person using Instagram well might get a few more clicks and likes for their updates, but the person who can put an image through Photoshop and create something entirely original can at least offer potential employers a diverse creative toolset, even if they aren't interested in ultimately finding a job as a graphic artist.
If we accept the idea that technology and society will become ever-more closely aligned as we move on to tomorrow, then at the very least, we owe it to tomorrow's children to help them become interested in understanding, exploiting, and adapting to the rapidly improving technologies that will govern their lives. We can't allow the next generation to grow up with the thought that the Internet is a "series of tubes," or let tomorrow's leaders fence themselves off in the walled gardens of the few major corporations that control so much of our digital world today -- especially when those same corporations are likely to one day be pushed aside as technology races forward. Thinking broadly and creatively will be important to tomorrow's techies, because building and deploying tomorrow's technology is likely require considerations we've never had to face before. Simply knowing the code won't be enough.
More importantly, everyone should be aware of the possibilities that tomorrow's technology offers the world as it spreads through society. The latter industrial era of the Baby Boomers offered reasonable lifestyles for those who could build a box. Machines can build boxes now, and plenty of other things besides, so -- to use a hackneyed phrase -- success will be found by thinking outside that box, and the process that built it.
Michael Chorost took this approach to writing World Wide Mind. When I asked him if he thought there might be a time frame for the adoption of the proposed "collective telempathy" technology at the heart of his book (essentially a network of brain-to-brain connections), he instead highlighted his thought process, which he described as such:
I'm trying to enlarge our imaginative scope. To break out of the naive assumption that tomorrow's technologies will be about letting us do what we do now, only better.
So you ask, what good is [collective telempathy]? And it's sort of like trying to explain the use of Twitter to someone from 1950. It's hard to think of plausible uses now. If you explained Twitter to someone from 1950, they'd say, "Why can't you just write a memo?" But new technologies create new social realities in which they become not only useful but indispensable. The future isn't just better than what we have now, but fundamentally different.
As technology progresses from massive and distant to tiny and intimate, development choices will increasingly require moral and social considerations as well as hardware and software considerations. These new developments will be, as Chorost says, fundamentally different from the reality we accept today. Tomorrow's children can't be locked into rigid thought processes if they're to effectively cope with a world where new technologies create larger impacts in less time with each major leap forward. What will we mere flesh-and-bone humans think of people who've implanted machines in their minds? Will we zealously pursue ways to manipulate our genetic code, or outlaw the mere effort to look closer into these new techniques?
Even if life expectancy flatlines from here on out, many of tomorrow's children can be expected to live clear to the next century. They will almost certainly be exposed to transhumanist -- that is, the effort to surpass the limits of human biological functionality with technological augmentations -- developments from a rather young age. It would be a grave disservice to them if we were to ignore the human side of the technological challenges they'll face, because they certainly won't be able to. And earlier still than the rise of transhumanism will be the proliferation of automation technologies, which offer the potential to radically reshape the way the world works -- or doesn't work, if enough jobs are given to machines without considering new ways to support a world with a much smaller workforce. Changing the way we think about work also requires us to change the way we think about money, which brings us to the second core attitude tomorrow's children will need for success in this strange new world.
Before we can even begin to educate our children to succeed in an accelerating future, we need to understand the world we, as their guardians, are preparing for them as we apply greater levels of technology to our interactions with money, whether that comes in the form of changing business practices, changing political attitudes, or changing economic policies. That requires serious thought, not only on the meaning of money in a world where fewer people may be needed at work, but about the meaning of work itself -- to say nothing of what investing, social insurance programs, and other methods of wealth accumulation and redistribution will look like in a world where work might mean something different than it has for centuries.
Attitudes toward money have for centuries ranged from extremes of collectivism to extremes of individualism. However, no matter its structure, a modern economy always tends to bestow a few high achievers with fantastic rewards while offering modest rewards in the best of times for everyone else. Pure socialism failed because party leaders sought to funnel more to themselves, while the average worker had little incentive to care about his performance so long as the only rewards were those that met basic needs. Pure capitalism, on the other hand, has in the past created staggering monopolies for a few and widespread oppression and misery for everyone else. These extremes are today typically moderated by government, which attempts to protect consumers from the rapacious maw of capitalism by covering it with socialist-lite safety nets. This public-private partnership has helped stretch a century of phenomenal economic growth into two centuries of phenomenal growth, but the healthy interplay between government and business can also be undermined if one side (populists or plutocrats) gains too much power over the other.
Capital is necessary for economic growth, but without labor -- or at least, without the income that labor earns -- capital can't be put to productive use. But what happens when less and less labor can produce greater and greater returns? That's been a common refrain in modern-day fears of automation, and we can already see the breakdown of this old relationship between labor and capital in the structure of our largest enterprises. At the height of its power in 1974, before being broken up as the last great monopoly in America, AT&T employed over a million people and earned about $5.5 billion in profit, which works out to about $26,000 in real profit per employee after adjusting the original $5,500 per employee for inflation. It was so large (it was the second-largest employer in the country, behind only the federal government) and so in control of a vital conduit in the American economic landscape that the government had already twice failed to break it apart before succeeding with a lawsuit first filed that year.
In our time, the closest thing we have to yesterday's AT&T is probably Google, which controls the conduits of Internet information to such a degree that it has no true competitor. At last count, Google employed about 42,000 people , and it earned $12.4 billion -- nearly $300,000 in profit per employee -- during its last four quarters. That's a more than tenfold increase in profit per person from the industrial age to the digital age, and Google (like many of its super-profitable peers) can funnel those profits back into advanced research projects, like the driverless car, that potentially threaten the livelihood of millions. You might say, "but there's a huge number of businesses that now depend on Google for their livelihood!" There were also a huge number of businesses that depended on AT&T as well; you really needed to have a phone to do business back in the 1960s. What matters is the impact each employee in a systemically important company has on the bottom line, and there's really no contest between the old way and the new.
As more and more functions and occupations come under the purview of automation technologies, one would expect more and more money to flow toward the people and corporations in control of these technologies. They'll require fewer employees to produce greater results. Capital will have the upper hand -- that is, if nothing changes. Just as the children of the Great Depression grew up with a different way of looking at money than their profligate Roaring 20s elders, the children of the digital age will need to learn new ways of dealing with the changing relationship between labor and capital as they grow into the leaders who must eventually guide the world through a period of incredible change. We -- their parents and grandparents -- will also find ourselves grappling with these changes, but our response to them will indelibly influence the attitudes of the next generation when it comes of age.
That doesn't mean that any one particular economic ideology followed today is the only prism through which we can view a better future. Like those who lived through the Great Depression, our children may also be forced to adapt to changing times by cobbling together the best parts of divergent economic and political ideologies.
Whatever the outcome, it seems likely that tomorrow's children will have to force the current system to change in order to preserve the growth we have long taken for granted. Charles Stross views capitalism, in its present form, as an unsustainable system barreling toward an inflection point -- although what that inflection point might look like is anyone's guess. I asked him for his opinions on the ways in which the spread of technology might affect the world beyond the obvious impacts of technological unemployment and automation, and this was his response:
Capitalism in its modern form is a very recent phenomenon in human history: we're only two and a third centuries past Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. It has produced undeniable and huge benefits, but also huge costs: climate instability, depletion of natural resources, pollution on a huge scale, and immiseration and unemployment in the name of progress. (It's all very well to talk about "creative destruction" and "disruption" creating opportunities for growth in the long term: in the short term, people get hurt when their source of steady income goes away.) Nor is it obvious that continuous compound economic growth is possible. Our physical resources are limited, as long as we only live on one planet, and while the intellectual property industries offer the promise of a growth sector that isn't hobbled by physical energy and matter constraints, the only way to maintain their profitability is to effectively tax copying -- which encourages rent-seeking.
I have no time for Leninism or other totalitarian ideologies, but it seems to me that Marx very astutely identified some paradoxes inherent in the unlimited pursuit of capitalism: notably its instability and periodic crises, the need for disequilibria in labor and capital flows in order to facilitate profit-taking, and its corrosive impact on non-fiscal human relationships. While today the repeated mantra is for outsourcing of government services to the private sector and loosening up of regulatory constraints, it doesn't seem to me to be plausible that corporations can provide public services at a lower cost than an efficiently managed state sector: where is their profit margin going to come from? I'm very much afraid that if we don't tame the runaway transnational capitalism that's taking root today, we're going to end up in a situation where we are compelled to embrace socialist solutions (including nationalization of corporate assets without compensation) if we're going to avoid mass starvation and civil unrest.
An important point to note is that our transnational corporations are, in a very real way, the first true artificial intelligences. They employ human beings, true, but the human components are ideally interchangeable: corporate goals are set out in their foundational documents, and the executives then guide the corporation's activities in pursuit of those objectives. Wherever possible, processes that can be automated are automated in order to shed the not-inconsiderable overheads of human employees. And the interests of a corporation are not necessarily aligned with those of the people who work for it, much less the citizens of the nations in whose environment the corporation exists. Much of what we take for a global free trade environment is in fact the product of intensive lobbying of the committees tasked with negotiating international trade treaties: we've seen regulatory capture emerge on a global scale, and the entities that dictate the shape of the free trade environment are not doing so with the best interests of humanity in mind.
The alternative ideologies on offer are all camped outside the big tent right now. The Greens are going to be with us in some form for the long haul -- and they are distinctly skeptical about the very concept of unlimited growth. The left is in general in eclipse, but some sort of new left synergy may emerge after a period of introspection. Racist, nationalist parties seem to wax and wane in line with economic instability, as witnessed in the frightening rise of the Golden Dawn in Greece. What I'd like to see is a new, pragmatic ideology based on humanism and human rights: that we should assess all proposals in terms of whether they hurt people, and aim to choose the policies that do the least harm. But I'm a hopeless optimist, and I see no sign of a large constituency emerging for such an ideology: as a species, we are prone to discounting long term benefits in favor of short term profits, even when doing so hurts us in the long run.
The interplay between technology and money is extremely complex and difficult to predict. The discovery of oil made both automobile and airplane possible, but it also created the most impressive monopoly ever seen in the United States and has propped up autocratic regimes for decades in the Middle East and elsewhere. People have been predicting an end to oil supplies almost from the moment oil was discovered, but it's historically been man-made shortages that have driven price spikes and efforts to broaden our energy horizons, not the natural drying-up of the world's wells. The tech industry and high finance have combined to create more millionaires and billionaires than any other industry, but both also express a strong drive to "streamline" business by eliminating what might amount to millions of jobs, while only producing thousands more in their own industry. We once thought that much of the populace would work in the tech industry, but except in the broadest sense of working with technology, that's never been true -- even today, the tech industry employs less than 3% of all American labor .
Ray Kurzweil believes strongly in the long-run ability of the economy to overcome threats of technological unemployment, because it's done such a good job overcoming these threats in the past. His rebuttal to critics who believe that robots are destined to take all our jobs echoes the comments Michael Chorost made about enlarging the scope of our imaginations:
This [technological unemployment] controversy goes back to the advent of automation in the textile industry in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century which marked the beginning of the industrial revolution. Weavers saw that one person with the new machines could replace dozens of weavers. New types of machines were introduced quickly and the weavers predicted that employment would soon be enjoyed only by the elite. They could see clearly the jobs going away but not the new types of employment that could not be described because they had not been invented yet. They formed a society to combat this called the Luddites. The reality turned out very different from their fears. New industries were formed and new jobs created that never existed before. The common man and woman could now have more than one shirt or blouse. The reality of jobs lost could be seen very clearly whereas the advent of new jobs that had not yet been invented were harder to understand.
If I were a prescient futurist giving a speech in 1900, I would say that a third of you now work on farms and another third in factories, but in a hundred years -- that is, by the year 2000 -- that will go down to 3% and 3%. That is indeed what happened; today it is 2% and 2%. Everyone in 1900 would exclaim, "My god, we'll all be out of work!" If I then said not to worry, you'll get jobs as website designers, database editors, or chip engineers, no one would know what I was talking about. In the U.S. today, 65% of workers are knowledge workers of some kind and almost none of these jobs existed fifty years ago.
So again today we can envision types of work that will go away through continued automation and it is difficult to envision the jobs that have not yet been invented.
The challenge in raising tomorrow's children won't lie in simply preparing them for a future that merely wraps what we have now in a sleeker, more technologically capable package. The people who have succeeded in navigating our changing world are the ones who think several steps ahead of the present, and that's the best attitude tomorrow's children can adopt. From an early age, their education is likely to follow one of two models: it will either prepare them for a future that's fundamentally different by developing the right mental tools to quickly adapt to change, or it will prepare them to be successful yesterday. In the next section, we'll examine the increasingly diverse educational opportunities you will be able to choose for tomorrow's children, to better understand how to help them build the mental tools they'll need to thrive.
2020: Teaching for tomorrow instead of yesterday
"[He] learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It's shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. [He] knew that every experience carries its lesson."-Frank Herbert, Dune
Things start to get interesting once tomorrow's children enter primary school, or at least begin the educational equivalent of primary school, around the year 2020. A multitude of efforts at education innovation and education reform, applied from kindergarten to the college level, will have been ripening for over a decade. Many of these efforts may only in the earliest stages of empirical validation, and some are bound to be rejected before tomorrow's children begin to learn, but some efforts will endure and catch on in the public consciousness. The challenge for new parents (and parents-to-be) in the coming years will be navigating this maze of new educational resources to best build in their children the skills and attitudes that will allow them to thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Parents can no longer simply sit back and wait for change to come. This is as true today for parents who will send their children off to the local public school as it is for those with the means and the motivation to place their offspring in elite institutions with cutting-edge technology and teaching methods. The American public education system, despite undergoing various minor pedagogical transitions over the past few decades, still relies on the same basic model it's used for over a century: identify facts, drill facts, and recall facts. Yesterday's education was designed to produce obedient button-pressers well-suited for an industrial economy that needed masses of obedient button-pressers. Many of those button-pressing jobs have been, or will be, automated in the near future.
None of the futurists I talked to had more to say about the future of education than Andrew McAfee. I first asked him how he might reform education to prepare students for a fast-changing future:
The ground rules for education should be that we need to turn out people who are good at things that computers are not good at. Now, that boundary is blurry these days, but I still have never seen a creative computer, or an innovative computer, or a computer that could realize what the problem was, let alone solve that problem. These kinds of skills still are in demand, and I think they are going to continue to be in demand.
The kinds of skills that we drill into students now -- the three R's -- via this factory model are going to become a lot less valuable. So my basic blueprint for educational reform is to start teaching kids creativity, innovation, problem identification, and problem solving skills, in addition to things like interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. We still need to be literate and numerate, even in the world that we are heading into.
No one should want to raise children who are ignorant of the basic facts of our world, but when so many of these facts can simply be found searching the relevant string on Google -- searching for information online is incidentally one of the fundamental skills for the future currently being overlooked by most educators -- it becomes far more important that tomorrow's children know what to do with the facts they find. However, public education is one of the largest and most entrenched fields of employment in America, and at the same time it's highly fractured along state and local lines. The results of any major public-school reforms are likely to spread slowly and unevenly through the country, which makes it an inadequate option for parents desperately in search of a better alternative to the current fact-based factory model of education.
Due to the grindingly slow pace of public-education reforms, truly preparing children for the future is all but certain to require a hefty amount of parental involvement from an early age. I followed up on McAfee's proposals by asking what he thinks parents can and should do on their own to give their children the tools for success in this fast-moving digital world:
I was a Montessori kid, and I am a huge believer in that system for younger children. It taught me that the world was an interesting place, and my job, even as a little kid, was to go out and ask questions of the world and see if I could figure out the answers to them. They talk about the Montessori Mafia in the high tech industry [Amazon's Jeff Bezos and both Google co-founders are Montessori alumni], and I don't think that's a complete coincidence. It really does encourage a sense of a curiosity and a desire to understand and solve problems, and that comes in incredibly handy. So I am a big believer in that.
At higher education levels, I hate to sound like an old fuddy‑duddy but the advice is: Take difficult courses, hit the books hard, seek out good teachers, and take advantage of the astonishing education resources we now have online -- everything from Khan Academy to the MOOCs [massive open online courses] that are out there. If you are relying on anybody else to spoon-feed you your education and prepare you for the workforce and the economy of tomorrow, I think that's really risky. Take it into your own hands and fill up your toolkit. You are just never going to get another chance.
How do we ensure that education works for tomorrow's children? The answer, as McAfee's alluded to, is part pedagogy -- teaching students how to learn rather than what to learn -- but it's also partly dependent on improvements in technology as well. If the public education system can't provide the right learning environment on its own, then connected coursework and digital toolkits will have to fill in the gaps. For years, colleges have been extending the reach of great teachers with online coursework, and other digital learning platforms have been deployed into more and more schools at ever-lower grade levels. Done broadly enough, this sort of coursework adopts the definition of a MOOC, a massive open online course where hundreds or thousands of eager learners can access the same great teacher at a fraction of the cost of standard tuition, if not for free.
Deploying education this way also makes it more readily quantifiable without necessarily funneling students through the narrow channel of standardized testing, and that data can help to analyze the quality of the educational program itself on an ongoing basis. The gamification of education is a hot topic right now, and it may not bear fruit in the way its backers expect, but the lessons found in developing effective games can be adapted into better ways of enhancing and analyzing student progress in virtual classrooms. After all, most modern games (at least the well-designed ones) give players multiple pathways to the completion of any given task, which turns the multiple-choice standardized testing paradigm on its head. Measuring learning doesn't have to mean that we measure it with a single right answer to any given question.
This doesn't mean that tomorrow's children will grow up with online coursework taught entirely by algorithm, but there's no reason why we shouldn't expect to see a growing range of worthwhile alternatives to the sclerotic public school system built into tomorrow's technologies. A MOOC led by one of the best teachers in the country, in any given field, ought to be readily available to everyone who wants to learn and has the foundational skill set necessary to understand the lesson. At first, these elite educators will require support structures -- teaching assistants, tutors, and administrators -- that will have to be staffed by humans, most likely those who felt stifled by the current public education system and decided to opt out along with their students. However, as natural-language interfaces and other software-based education tools improve, digital assistants can begin to step in for support, much as they already have in customer service roles.
Add in the capabilities of tomorrow's gaming consoles, which are likely to be equipped with an immersive virtual reality system such as the Oculus Rift (or its superior descendant, the product of several more years of further development) as well as the motion sensors and lifelike graphics that are standard today, and you have the seeds of a truly virtual classroom that works as well as or better than the real thing. These technologies simply represent the beginning of a wholesale shift away from a model of education that has survived for thousands of years, and there's a long way to go before the dream of a virtual classroom becomes a reality for the masses.
However, we should never rush blindly into the next big thing in education. Online charter schools, which have been pushed heavily by for-profit education company K12 and which attempt to largely replace the bricks-and-mortar model with virtual classrooms, consistently show worse student performance than the public schools they aim to replace. The company's performance has been so abysmal that legendary investor Whitney Tilson likened it to predatory subprime mortgage lenders in a bearish thesis presented at the 2013 Value Investing Congress. When Atlantic writer Hanna Rosin attended a development conference for young children's educational apps, she found that despite their obvious professional enthusiasm for digital media, app developers still frequently restrict their own children from using this nascent format, wary that an overdependence on technology might stunt growth elsewhere. The impact of technology on education is often measured across years, and many of the options now available have a very limited track record on which to be judged, if they offer a track record at all.
While we might take issue with today's systems, we can be reasonably certain that those available to tomorrow's children will be much better than those available today. Seven years (from this article's publication to 2020) is a long time when you're talking about modern technology. It's the span between AOL's peak and the mainstreaming of Facebook, or in hardware terms, the difference between a Motorola Razr and an iPhone. And if technology is indeed improving exponentially, the next seven years will see a great deal more improvement than the last seven, or perhaps even the last 700. The difficulty will lie in balancing the desire for private-sector innovation with the understanding that a child's education should not be subject to the same profit motive as selling tablets.
Parents want their children to succeed, and most parents are willing to go to any length to ensure that success. If that means adopting alternate models of education to that provided by public schools, or even those offered by the better private schools (often at an untenable cost to middle class families), most parents would do it without batting an eye as long as the costs are bearable, even if there may not be a great deal of data to support the efficacy of that alternative. And there is a growing body of evidence that the public education system is simply failing to provide what it's historically been meant to: an opportunity for everyone.
There is already a marked level of inequality in American public schools when it comes to the graduation and achievement rates seen between rich and poor students, white and black or Hispanic students, and even between students in one state against another . If the best options for tomorrow's education are only within reach of parents who can and will devote substantial effort to directing their children toward those options, the gap between educational have and have-not is bound to widen even further. I asked McAfee if, given all this, he felt that the link between education and opportunity might soon break down, and he countered that it already appears to have broken down:
I think that link [between an ordinary education and opportunity] is already broken. Up until recently, it was a decent bargain that if you went to college, you had a decent career ahead of you when you got out. And that bargain really feels like it's falling apart and there is plenty of blame to go around. When you look at college graduation rates, only half of the students who enter full‑time four‑year undergraduate colleges and universities graduate within six years. The statistics are even worse at the community college level.
So the link between a just-OK education and opportunity is already fairly broken. Now, if you work hard, if you get a good education, or if you're a combination of smart enough, rich enough and fortunate enough to go to an elite institution, that link is still pretty strong. I think those links are going to remain strong for some time to come. But the link between a completely average education and economic opportunity is very rapidly getting weaker.
I think that higher education is going to find itself in serious trouble if and when employers stop requiring college degrees for their job applicants. Now, unfortunately, there is not a lot of evidence that that is happening -- in fact, the opposite is happening. For a lot of jobs, even jobs where we wouldn't think a college degree is necessary, employers are still saying, "show up with a B.A. or we are not even going to talk to you." That insulates the higher education industry from a lot of pressure and a lot of need to change.
I do think that there is some downward pressure on cost, because they have risen so high and some innovators out there are doing different things. But the industry is really only going to get shaken up when employers stop requiring that as a criteria for consideration. And it's starting. We see tiny little changes to the status quo, especially in high tech for the more technical jobs --programming jobs and coding jobs -- they are relying less on your educational credentials and more on things like your GitHub score, your TopCoder score, your demonstrated abilities out there in the real world. But that's a tiny little part of the economy and just a small number of jobs.
It stands to reason that if more skill sets can be quantified, then more skill sets will be, which should lead to a proliferation of alternative credentialing systems like GitHub and TopCoder. This may never be able to accurately assess one's ability at more humanistic skills, which involve interacting with people, finding the connections between disparate data points, or in using one's creative talents to move an audience. But when it comes to fields where the basic facts are known, digital learning platforms can be very helpful in building advanced abilities, and the better platforms might well emerge as alternatives to the high school diploma. If aspiring coders can log on from anywhere in the world to practice their skills on a recognized platform that can signal competence to potential employers, why can't aspiring scientists, economists, or engineers also have access to a similar system?
As these credentialing systems catch on, parents will face even greater pressure to help tomorrow's children maximize their educational potential. This connects back to the same thread of inequality running through many early alternative options, but inequality of opportunity isn't likely to be restricted to students. Transforming education from a highly localized experience to a digital one with a global reach is likely to have a profound impact on the hundreds of thousands of educators now employed in American schools, as well as on the millions of students who may choose to opt out of those schools.
Massively open teaching platforms, with the proper individualized support and incentive structure, would likely wind up rewarding the few elite teachers who can quantifiably produce the best results, creating a top-heavy system not unlike that of professional sports or the entertainment industries, where a few highly skilled individuals prop up a far larger number of modestly paid supporting players. Once the alternatives to public schooling become clearly superior in terms of both results and costs, it's likely that the shift will occur quickly. That shift may take place in the next ten years or it may not take place until tomorrow's children send their children off to be educated, but history has shown that when a new technology provides clearly superior results to earlier options, society is likely to adopt it rather quickly -- smartphones, for example, went from a niche product to one carried by over a billion people in just over five years.
A quick look at the employment figures in film or pro football might give us pause before we rush headlong into this brave new world. If MOOCs and other widely deployed education systems take off, tomorrow's children may very well encounter, quite early on in their lives, a technologically mediated winner-take-all environment in what's historically been a slow-moving industry that offers far better protections than most to substandard employees. Easier access to elite educators is of course beneficial to students, but it risks disrupting one of the steadiest sources of employment in the postwar era :
It's quite rare to find someone in the public school system who completely wrecks the payroll curve, but it's a fact of life in pro sports and in Hollywood. Players in the four major sports leagues combined to earn $10.1 billion for the 2012 season, out of $38.4 billion in earnings for all employees in the spectator sports industry, as well as for employees in the performing arts, and in museums and parks -- the St. Louis Fed doesn't break out sports earnings separately. Less than 1% of the workforce in this part of the economy -- which totals about 540,000 people -- received 26% of its wages. Totals for top actors are harder to come by, but since the single highest-paid actor in film (Robert Downey, Jr.) earned $75 million over the past year, it's probably safe to assume that a similar chunk of the total earnings pie in these industries goes toward top film and TV stars as well. Some teachers might -- and ought to -- earn much more for their efforts in this sort of environment, but most will find their earning power rather diminished if education transitions toward a winner-take-all design.
We may not necessarily want to create such an environment, but history shows that when talent can be effectively shared with the largest possible audience, the audience tends to gravitate toward a few of the topmost talents, often to the exclusion of anyone seen as even modestly less talented. Salman Khan and his Khan Academy have produced about 5,100 videos that have been viewed over 300 million times, all without any expectation of profit. If each viewing is something akin to one class in a public school, then that's something akin to the work of about 65,000 single-subject teachers over the course of a full 180-day school year -- and this doesn't account for the fact that a number of school days aren't particularly productive. If a parent has a choice between sending their children to an average group of teachers at the nearest public school and providing them with access to the best teachers in the world of subjects the children are actually interested in, what parent is going to take the first option?
Education is supposed to provide opportunity. If that's no longer the case -- if the desired outcomes for success in a fast-changing future retreat behind walls that can only be scaled by children whose parents have the means and the motivation to do something different -- then tomorrow's children, regardless of their education, will wind up experiencing inequality in a very real and direct way. Due to the way most societies are structured, with high-earners congregating together and low-earners occupying primarily low-earning social circles, tomorrow's children may not really understand the impact of an unequal education until years later. However, if technology begins to replace public schools with superior education opportunities, then inequality among students may very well diminish, but at the cost of greater inequality in a displaced teaching workforce. Since teachers are far from the only ones whose professions are at risk of widespread technologically motivated downsizing, tomorrow's children could begin confronting the reality of systemic unemployment by the time they enter middle school.
2025: What's the measure of a man in an age of machines?
"Many countries today have begun the transition from an industrial wealth system and civilization to a knowledge-based system, without appreciating that a new wealth system is impossible without a corresponding new way of life." -- Alvin Toffler
By the age of ten, tomorrow's children may well have already experienced more upheaval than any generation since that raised during the Great Depression. You, their parents and grandparents, will be largely removed from these changes at an educational level, but you won't be able to ignore the next wave of changes, which will begin to mature by the time tomorrow's children prepare to enter middle school.
The spread of automation, which seems likely to take hold in the transportation industry at roughly the same time as automated on-demand manufacturing matures with 3-D printing technology, will affect everything from the manner in which your children get to soccer practice to the fit and traction of the cleats on their feet. When enough of the world's two most important economic functions -- manufacturing and transportation -- can be run with minimal or no human input, then the structure of an economy we've taken largely for granted for over a century is likely to change in fundamental ways, as it once did during the Great Depression.
We know that 3-D printers can be useful in a wide range of ways, but their functional applications remain limited at present to a few niche operations, whether streamlining highly specialized manufacturing processes or creating complex new jewelry and other decorative trinkets. We also know that automated machinery is preferable to large pools of manufacturing labor based on the inexorable progress of the industry toward more production with less work. Despite the best efforts of streamlining experts, machinery has not yet advanced to the point where entire supply chains can be operated without human inp