The Impending Technological Singularity: Implications for Education

The new school year is finally here. My seniors have returned ready for year two of our journey together through IB Biology, and along with them come a new crop of 9th graders that bring with them the unfamiliar. Every class is different and over time they develop a reputation that will stay with them throughout their four years whether evidence continues to support these labels or not.

In my first class with the 9th graders this year, something peculiar happened that cannot be ignored. In an effort to establish a baseline of my student's understanding of investigative techniques in the laboratory, we began with an introductory activity that for the past two years has taken our students the full period and then some to complete. This was different. This year half of them finished with time left to cause trouble. The kind of trouble that 9th graders inevitably find themselves involved in with they don't have structures and routines controlling their every move. Again. This was different. I noticed a group of them were deeply involved in whatever was happening on one of the student's computer screens and my imagination went wild. Much to my relief, they were watching him code a game that they all played together. I asked how many of them liked to code, and almost half of them raised their hands and they were competing with each other to explain how this "Choose Your Own Adventure" game worked that they were all involved in. It was clear to me that they were able to speak and communicate in the language of code with the same level of comfort and proficiency that you would see in a person who was fluent in a second language. I am predicting this class will be known as the challenging "Techy" group. I say challenging because I would argue that most teachers will not be able to speak the same language that this group of kids prefers to converse in.

In the past 5 years, we have incorporated some problem-based learning units into the Integrated Science 9 and 10 curricula. What always amazes me the most is the ease with which students access and integrate various technologies to communicate their learning. Websites, infographics, programs, novel presentation platforms, video/multimedia creation platforms. You name it. Their learning curve is steep and fast.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

Student infographic from a genetics project.

 This got me thinking of Moore's law.

Back in the 1960's Gordon Moore of Intel predicted that the number of transistors per integrated circuit would double every 18 months. This was of course based on prior trends, but it has held true for an additional 50 much so that industry has been driven by this predictive metric.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

Click on the image to read about the approaching technological singularity.

In an article in Co.Design, Mark Zucherberg applied Moore's law to the culture of sharing:

We talk about the Moore’s law of sharing, but we never meant that all this will happen on Facebook—it will happen in the world. Our challenge is to make that happen on Facebook. I draw an analogy to Intel. Moore’s law was great for them, because they could point at the world and say, "Okay, in 18 months, someone’s going to fit this many transistors on a circuit board—we’d better be the ones to do it or else someone is gonna eat our lunch!" I look at this the same way. Three years from now, people are going to be sharing eight to 10 times as much stuff. We’d better be there, because if we’re not, some other service will be.

I would argue that there should be a Moore's law of education as well.

The evolution of artificial intelligence and the impending technological singularity has been an obsession of mine for quite some time. In short, the idea is that in developed nations the evolution of human intelligence has begun to plateau and technology is in a position to overtake human intelligence. By combining the two, humans stand to kick start an unimaginable increase in human intelligence which would trigger a technological singularity. Even more alarming is that the predicted dates of this merger between human and machine seem to focus on the decade between 2020 and 2030. My 9th graders will be graduating from high school in 2020.

As an educator, I have to ask myself, "How am I preparing my students for THIS future?". Even more importantly, Educators should be asking, "How are we preparing ourselves to prepare our students for THIS future?"

I encourage you to check out this video, entitle Humans Need Not Apply: 


I have been a Technology Integration Coach at ASB for the past three years. This has given me a unique opportunity to observe learning from many perspectives. The teachers at ASB are some of the best that I have ever worked with. They work tirelessly to understand their students needs through collaboration and data-informed decision making in an effort to personalize the education of each and every student. The problem is not in the teachers efforts but in our systemic metrics. Our school is an IB school. For seniors the focus is on IB scores and college admissions. To prepare them to achieve their goals it takes 25 hours a day. As a result, education as an institution is focused on the slow-to-change systems (IBO, College Admissions processes, SAT, etc.). This does not leave room for a great deal of forward thinking beyond the general trends of higher education. Another unfortunate consequence is that educators in general are much slower at learning and integrating new technologies into their practices than our students. This is the conundrum. If advances in technology are increasing at a pace predicted by Moore's Law, and our students, despite a lack of instruction in this acquisition of knowledge are gaining at a much faster pace than those in charge of educating them, at what point does the gap become too large? At what point does our current educational model become irrelevant? 

As a biology teacher, I often find that biological systems serve as perfect metaphors for any wicked problem we face as a society. The one that best fits this wicked problem is climate change. For years we have been contributing to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in the name of progress and innovation. The human species was launched into relevance by the agricultural and more importantly the industrial revolution. The system was huge, the rewards were inconceivable and numerous, and the risks of environmental impact were considered negligible if they were considered at all. Now it is rumored that climate change is real (have you read about the floods in Louisiana this week?) :-) We are on a pathway to destruction and people are still in denial. Scientists all over the world are desperately searching for solutions while the populace continues to ignore the threats in the face of economic hardship. A plea published by the Economist leads with the subheading: 

Global warming cannot be dealt with using today’s tools and mindsets. So create some new ones.

Has climate change gotten too out of hand for us to find a solution in time? Is it too late to change the system?

Let this be a warning to educators around the world. If we don't do something to prepare ourselves to prepare this next generation for a technologically advanced society, will the gap between our level of integration and our students level of integration become too wide? Will we become irrelevant? We owe it to our students to look beyond college admissions and IB exams. It is time for education to change our curve before it is too late.