As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future of technology in education, I often get asked for technologies that I think are revolutionizing our education system. To most people’s surprise, my favorite answer is Google. Now, we don’t think of Google being an educational product, but in my opinion, it is making a bigger difference to education than anything else is.
THE GOOGLE SEARCH MINDSET
Imagine someone who lived in a rural area only a couple of decades ago. It is not unconceivable that they could go their entire life without knowing answers to a certain question that they might have had, even if the answer was already known to someone else in the world. To me, this is still a mindblowing fact. The advent of Google meant that anyone with access to a computer could find an answer to pretty much any question they had, even though they’d have to remember to look it up the next time they were at their computer. Today, when we’re out in the world and have a random question pop in our heads, it takes about a minute to pull out one’s smartphone and find the answer.
So what does this have to do with education? Well, it is an unfortunate truth that most of the school systems around the world still strongly emphasize the teaching and learning of factual information. We live in a world where the businesses don’t need people who know all the answers, but people who know how to find them. It is quite remarkable that the education system is still set up under the assumption that there is a fixed, non-negotiable, finite set of information that every child needs to know by the book in a predetermined order. We still suggest that the teacher and textbook is the authority and children who disagree with anything they say should be penalized for doing so. With the proliferation of Google, the world has seen a rapid reduction in the value of “knowledge” (defined as the acquaintance with facts). Not so long ago, people highly respected the librarian who always knew what book to look in and where to find the book in the library. Today, with the Google search mindset, we can have access to the all world’s books in a matter of minutes.
TAKING IT TO THE LIMITS
However, even though the amount of time it takes to look up a fact today is probably under a minute (and reducing still with Google’s Knowledge Graph), it is non-trivial. This means that when one is in the context of a real life conversation, “knowledge” still has strong value because retrieving from memory is clearly distinguishable from looking something up. Google’s next breakthrough in this direction is supposedly Google Glass, which could in theory be displaying some information that the wearer could pretend to have known from memory. However, it seems like the Google Glass screen is out of one’s direct line of sight so looking at it is not exactly the most discreet thing, even if one doesn’t have to use the touch or voice controls.
One of my beliefs that many people I know disagree with is that I can totally see a world where we all have a chip in our brain. With a reliable way for the brain to input information to this computer, and to receive information back, we would be able to bridge the gap between “knowing” and searching. With that, we would finally deliver on the promise of the Memex, a hypothetical computer system conceived in 1945 named after “Memory Extender”. The opposition I’ve heard to this vision touches on two themes: people who are afraid that it will make us less human, and people who question the ethical implications of invasive technologies.
To me, this system does not make us less human; in fact, I believe it makes us more human. It is the natural conclusion of the transformation that Google has brought about to our lives. In the same way that technology eliminated a lot of the “low-level” tasks from our day to day work, like the washing machine and the graphing calculator, I see this trend eliminating the need to memorize factual information. In such a world, we would value many more of the higher-order bits: deep understanding, creativity, instinct, social skills, judgement and mental agility. Consequently, this will force our education system to finally give up its preoccupation with facts and focus on better preparing kids for the world they are about to inherit.
The ethical question is more puzzling: it seems that even if the technology was developed for something of this sort, it might not come to life because invasive devices are bound to raise ethical concerns. I am told that the pacemaker is considered very much an exception than a harbinger of times to come, because it is necessary for survival, while a device that enhances human ability may not have the same reception. This is something I had always had at the back of my mind, even though I still believed that someday we would get over this concern and just like in the case of plastic surgery, invasive devices will eventually become mainstream.
A TINY DEVICE BLOWS MY MIND
The last time I was completely blown away was when I met the inventor of a tiny device called Audeo three months ago. Admittedly, I am usually very critical of new products that I see, and my mind is a hard one to blow. However, given the context of things that I was thinking about, it is easy to imagine that my mind was blown when my assumption that devices that we could communicate with discreetly had to be invasive was shattered by this little device.
Audeo is a sensor that a user wears on their neck that can pick up on the electrical impulses being sent from the brain to the vocal cords. The interesting thing is, when you intend to say something, the signal is sent to the vocal cords irrespective of whether or not one actually ends up saying it. The technology was invented at the University of Illinois in 2004, with the original intention of helping people with speech and motor disabilities to be able to talk: if someone just thought of what they wanted to say, the device could then say it for them, without having to push any buttons. The inventors were then able to use the device to allow disabled people to control a wheelchair without any motion whatsoever. However, the device’s application to everyone else started becoming clear with the demonstration of a voiceless phone call: the wearer simply thinks of what they would like to say and the device is able to vocalize it. To me, this device is even more exciting than that, because coupled with a discreet way for the device to feed information back to you (something as simple as an earpiece) and a fast enough Internet connection, it breaks the threshold between remembering something and looking it up.
But why am I obsessed with a technology that was invented nearly 10 years ago? Surely I have heard about all the amazing things humans have come up with in the time since? Indeed I have, and that is why I believe this technology is finally ready for mass adoption. The consumer electronics industry has been shaken from the ground in the last 7-8 years. The combination of open-source, crowdfunding and, most importantly, the iPhone has dramatically reduced component prices by rapidly commoditizing many new technologies. As a result, we have seen a renaissance of consumer hardware with companies like Fitbit and Jawbone leading the pack (full disclosure: I was an Intern at Fitbit during the Summer of 2013). Back in 2004, it was simply impossible to squeeze in sensor technology, wireless communications and a long-lasting battery into a box that was small enough to be elegant when worn around one’s neck. Today, remarkably, we can do what was impossible less than a decade ago.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR OUR FUTURE
I’m still amazed everytime I consider how young the Internet is. Merely a couple of decades ago, someone who predicted that by 2013 we will have products like Wikipedia, Twitter and Google Maps, would have been called crazy by most everyone. Today, these products are not only real, they’re free and have also fundamentally transformed entire industries including retail, media and marketing. The biggest lesson I have learnt from this idea is that it is impossible to predict confidently where the world will be only a couple of decades in the future.
And yet, our school systems think they can. It is revealing to consider that the children entering schools next year will retire in 2075. Indeed, a large proportion of them will be doing jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. Even today, 70% of college graduates get jobs as knowledge workers, where there job requires them to figure things out for themselves rather than repeatedly doing what they are trained to do. Yet we are still using a school system that has been largely unchanged since the late 19th century, when <5% of people were employed in knowledge work. Instead of skating to where the puck is going to be or is, we are sadly skating to where the puck used to be. We need to discard our obsession with learning facts and teach the things that are going to be valuable skills for the next generation’s lifetime: creativity, interpersonal skills and the ability to learn anything. If devices like the Audeo are a sign of things to come, we need to make some fundamental changes, and fast.