As technology evolves at an exponential rate, learning will help people harness new tech-enabled capabilities.
Last week at Fusion 2017 in Las Vegas, visionary author, inventor, and futurist Ray Kurzweil took to the mainstage to deliver the special guest keynote, during which he made one point quite clear: in an age of accelerating technology, learning is becoming more and more important.
Here’s why: It starts with Kurzweil’s core thesis, the Law of Accelerating Returns, which he wrote about in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, and elaborated on in an eponymous essay in 2001. It states: “fundamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories.”
Kurzweil gave a good example of his Law of Accelerating Returns in action in the Human Genome Project. It took seven years to map 1% of the human genome, but thanks to exponential improvement in info tech, the project completed in a matter of years as opposed to centuries (1990-2003). According to Kurzweil, our ability to understand the genome, model it, simulate it, and to reprogram it, is also continuing to progress exponentially. These technologies are now 1000 times more powerful than they were when the Genome Project was completed. Indeed, it’s led to a whole new medical revolution in fields like biotechnology.
Because of exponential improvement, technology is also getting smaller, more powerful, and more intimate with us. We are doubling the power of computation for the same price now every year, said Kurzweil. The smartphone is already a billion times more powerful per dollar than the “advanced” room-sized computer he said attracted him to enrolling at MIT in 1965, and devices, said Kurzweil, will continue to shrink to the point of being used in or around our bodies.
For example, Kurzweil predicts that in 25 years we will have developed blood cell-sized robots that will do three interesting things: they will extend our immune systems, acting like little robotic T cells; they will provide virtual and augmented reality from inside the nervous system; they will also extend our neocortex, through a cloud-based brain expansion that will ultimately help us bridge with AI to become smarter and more creative, musical, and funnier.
Of course, all of this will have an impact on human endeavours like work. It won’t be a long time before machines will take over things like truck-driving and manufacturing, for example, and there is indeed mounting concern that rapidly evolving technologies will eliminate a significant amount of employment. But such job loss is not a new story in human history, said Kurzweil.
“We’ve actually eliminated all human employment several times already in human history,” he said. “How many jobs circa 1900 exist today?” He added that “for every job we eliminate we’re going to create more jobs at the top of the skills ladder to replace it.”
Indeed, fields like elearning, website development, and data analytics have all brought new jobs to the top of the skills ladder that didn’t exist in the 20th century.
“Most importantly, the new jobs are actually more interesting,” Kurzweil told the Fusion audience. “Increasingly, people are self-actualizing, getting gratification from their jobs—some, their life definition, identity,” he said. “We’re moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy. You were happy if you had a backbreaking job that let you put food on your family’s table in 1900. Today, increasingly, people are doing worthwhile, interesting things.”
As technology continues its rapid advancement, and as humans increase their capabilities by working with it more, and even merging with it, the trend of adding such jobs is going to continue, said Kurzweil, and that’s why learning is going to become more important—if anything, he believes that advancing tech will result in more jobs, not fewer.
“[Education]’s going to become increasingly important as we create types of work that use uniquely creative human capabilities, and we’re going to increase those capabilities as we merge more and more with technology that actually makes us smarter. We really need to teach children and adults how to use these increased capabilities to solve world problems.”
“So, you’re all in the right field.”