World Future Society, the Day After – Optimistically Realistic

It’s Sunday, the day after the intense 2010 World Future Society conference and it’s time to reflect.  I bumped into Ken Shepard this morning whom I met on Thursday in Holacracy class and we debriefed for about an hour.  I’ve got to admit, there’s a lot of disturbing aspects to what I heard this week in presentations and conversations.  I am an optimist but am finding the views of others about possible futures to be challenging to accept.  To start off, here’s the titles of the sessions I attended and what has struck me most about this week:
I learned a new way of running an organization that claims to honour good process, organizational purpose, and people’s time and energy.  I will dive deeper in the the Holacracy method to see if there is a match for my organization.

A core current running through the conference seemed to be that the technologists will save the world.  Okay, that may be overstating things.  On the one hand tech like gene manipulation and engineering will allow us to cure most disease, curtail or reverse aging, enhance our memories, muscle strength, thinking skills, create meat without animals, etc.  This tech will allow us to grow new limbs and correct other damage to our bodies, and solve world hunger.  The downside is, these ideas involve major tampering with genes, cells, and the use of nanobot technology (nanometer scale robots) inside our bodies and blood stream.

There was much talk about “The Singularity” where machine intelligence will match than rapidly exceed human intelligence mid-21st century.  I’m currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s ‘05 book “The Singularity is Near” on my iPad to get some insight into this idea.  The 1st keynote speaker Wendell Wallach called himself a “friendly skeptic of the idea”.  An underlying belief is that our brains are essentially complex bio-chemical machines that can be reverse engineered and replicated in a machine.  Kurzweil’s claim is that the exponential increase in computation, memory power, and decrease in size of machines along with the exponential decrease in cost will allow us to reach the point of Singularity for one human brain in 2029 exceed all human brains by 2048.  He uses a lot of historical data to prove that technological evolution is at an exponential increase level everywhere and extrapolates that this will continue and accelerate.  Wallach argues that we have so little understanding of our massively parallel processing, pattern recognizing brain and so many facets (vision, language, locomotion, learning, framing, semantic understanding, scaling, consciousness) that are so complex, that it isn’t likely possible this century, if ever.

Turning to technology near term…  there is a lot of talk about the Internet of Things (physical objects and systems all connected – roads, bridges, traffic lights, automobiles, clothing, anything) reaching 1 trillion “things” by 2020.  Massive storage of information is coming… an “exaflood” of information (exabytes, read “huge”).  Gordon Bell (now at Microsoft) is working on a project called My Life Bits to store everything known about his entire life and claims that in 15 years a small device that fits in the palm of your hand will store your “life’s bits”.

I enjoyed Maria Anderson’s Levers of Change in Higher Education presentation (my notes)…

where she compared education to a manufacturing factory.  She took us on a journey through higher ed talking about the motivations for learning today by parents, students, business, government, society and used an analogy to a car factory.  People want base models (bachelors) and upgrades to luxury models (masters, PhD’s).  The audience when surveyed as parents wants a large foundation of knowledge, logical / critical thinking, good judgment, and maturity.  She talked about other models that are now available (airplane – all aboard), Subway (buffet style, ala cart, online), or emerging such as Open Education (Edupunk – DIY, Peer to Peer – P2PU, School of everything), Open Textbooks (Flatworld Knowledge), Open Courseware (MIT, Massively Open Online Course – MOOC freemium), SPACED ED (content keeps streaming to students in chunks), Open Learning.  I think it would be interesting to create a K12 specific story-line using the method/style of Levers for Change and might just do that…

The “Human – Computer Interface” session was all about gadgets.  You’ve got to check out Project Natal – currently focused on gaming, entertainment, consumers but which has fascinating possibilities for learning. Light Blue Optics is a glimpse of what’s possible to provide a digital keyboard and screen to small mobile devices as well as the Nikon Projector Camera.  Or for digital artists, the Leonar3Do enables 3D sketching.  Digital photo frames (dime a dozen…) will go wireless and you’ll be able to push new photo streams to grandma 3000 kilometers away!

The final keynote, Mike Rogers, a journalist and technologist talked about the virtualization of the world.  He claims that the next 15 years will be as big a change in society as the 1000 year change from villages to cities.  During that change, we extracted ourselves from our source of food – others now had to bring us our food.  The move to the digital world will see us abstracting ourselves from the physical world – a blur between physical reality and virtual reality.  Already many of us live our lives in both worlds.  The difference will be that the virtual world will be more immersive, more realistically experiential, and will not have the same limitations as the physical world – this is good and bad…  He talked about heads-up glasses being available in 5 years – project screen in bifocal area – appears as a full sized screen, connected via cell phone to the Internet, look up a map, look around see the map overlaid on the street, see restaurant reviews pop up as you see the physical place, recognize people’s faces automatically and bring up their Facebook, LinkedIn, twitter, etc. profile for you, all in real time.  He claims that by 2020, every inch of the USA will have high-speed low cost broadband wireless access.  By 2020, all automobiles will be intelligently connected to the Internet for Car-Car, Car-Infrastructure 2-way communication.  Bridges, roads telling the car their conditions, car insurance on a subscription based on distance traveled, where you drive, how you drive.  He sees problems…  virtual space is really like moving to another land – we need to develop the rule of law, the Internet is really a lawless place today.  Need real identities, perhaps online drivers licenses, new taxation methods, updated copyright laws.  He worries about young people developing our new software and virtual places without the involvement of more senior people with life experience.

To close, I see a common need emerging…  that of ethics, morality, wisdom.  I think there are a lot of scenarios that project good futures but every technology we’ve created has a dark use.  We need to be more careful than ever before – the power to completely destroy ourselves is greater than ever.  Just because we “can” create some new capability doesn’t mean we “should”.  We may need to curtail our technology and inventions, etc. to minimize the risks.  I am optimistic that we will increasingly work on the ethical, moral, legal aspects of potential futures. 

How does this relate to K12 education?  In more ways than I can describe.  We need to be preparing students and families for an exponentially more complex future, and there isn’t the luxury of long periods of time.  How do we get the right people, those that can make change happen, engaged in foresight planning and modifying the priorities for learning?  I think that is a key question for those of us in the K12 education system.


  1. Will technology save the world or destroy everything we know? Just thinking of what Monsanto did to food production.


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