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The Future and Learning – Connecting the Dots

The learning landscape continues to evolve in very interesting ways.

I’ve noticed lately, for example, that artificial intelligence (AI) seems to finally be getting significant traction. Enough so that numerous notable figures like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk have expressed concern concerns about how it might run amok.

On a more prosaic level, a recent report suggests that more than half of current jobs may be made redundant within 20 years, largely by the rise of AI. Jobs that can be categorized as “routine” have been disappearing for some time, and advances in AI ensure that a growing number of jobs will call in the “routine” category.

On other, not unrelated fronts, scientists are making significant advances in enhancing and extending neuroplasticity, the quality fundamental to rapid growth and change of the human brain. I found these lines from a recent Aeon article on the topic quite provocative:

As our species evolves into the unknown future, it may be that lifelong learning supersedes physical survival as the means by which we prevail. Extended plasticity could be what our species needs most right now.

Last, but certainly not least, NPR’s Science Friday recently ran a piece titled “Dawn of the Cyborg Bacteria,” discussing how microorganisms can be use to create “nanobots.” MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte sees a future in which the “best way to interact with the brain is from the inside, from the bloodstream,” and nanobots would be the ticket for doing this. As Negroponte puts it in this BigThink video,

you could in theory load Shakespeare into your bloodstream and as the little robots get to the various parts of the brain they deposit little pieces of Shakespeare or little pieces of French if you want to learn how to speak French

Bacteria are just one potential path into transferring information into the human brain. Researchers at MIT have recently developed a new fiber interface that allows for a computer to be plugged into a human brain.

The End of Passivity and Other Implications

One of the main lessons to take from all of this is that it is clearer than ever that we no longer live in an information economy. When machines can manipulate information orders of magnitude faster than we can – as they already do – and we are on the verge of essentially being able to program ourselves, information has reached full commodity status.

As I’ve argued before (in, for example, Leading the Learning Revolution), knowledge is also increasingly suspect as a source of competitive advantage, whether for individuals or organizations. Command of any particular body of knowledge is fleeting, and as the news about artificial intelligence suggests, machines are becoming increasingly adept at not simply manipulating information, but also at actually using information to develop new knowledge – in other words, learning.

In this new landscape, I think it is critical to …

…pay attention
The future will take you by surprise only if you don’t have any idea what’s coming. Tune into trends like those I highlight above. Think through their logical implications. How will they positively or negatively impact your work, the field you work in, and your life in general? What actions can you take to …

… be intentional
Recognize that we no longer live in an information society or work in a knowledge economy. Information and knowledge are static. Learning is the dynamic force of change and progress. Learning is the ultimate destructive force and the ultimate creative force. Have a vision and a plan – both short term – for learning, and then …

… be active
Most traditional education is passive and is going to be of increasingly limited use in this new landscape. Traditional education is much better at information and static knowledge than it is at learning. A great deal of trial and error is at the heart of machine learning. Effective human is really no different. Don’t expect to sit in a conference session or lecture and learn anything deeply. Apply new information to see the results. Regularly take risks to test your knowledge. Continually push to new levels of competency in your key areas of skill. Work to control your biases, and be sure to …

… be eclectic
We all need a good general set of skills and knowledge, but knowing how to apply these skills in non-routine and novel ways will be what stands the most successful apart. This is different from the “specialize, specialize, specialize” mantra we hear so often. Yes, specialization can be valuable, but too narrow-minded a focus leads to the “foolish consistency” that Emerson warned us about. We preserve and continually develop our ability to think broadly and see connections others may not see. The eclectic generalist will rule the day, and this person will understand just how important it is to …

… be human
Arguably, the day when machines become daily companions and competitors in thinking are upon us. At least for the moment, though, it looks like it could be quite a while before the Turing Test for feeling is passed (Hollywood Movies aside). As a recent article in the Wise Ed Review suggests, cultivating on qualities like empathy and character should be a major aim of learning

I think it is worth each of us reflecting regularly on how we are doing in each of these areas. The future is at hand, and learning is the key to navigating it successfully.

What do you think?


About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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