By Timothy C. Mack
President, World Future Society
This article was originally published in The Korea Times, page S2, on Thursday May 12, 2011
Whenever we hear people talking about the future of smart technology, we often hear about new and faster ways to experience their favorite media content through the use of well-designed products. They invariably anticipate that they will all live a smarter life, and maybe even “happily ever after.” But in fact, it isn’t easy to determine what the real-life experiences of people using smart technology are now, let alone what they will be tomorrow. Do all of their smart TVs, their smartphones, and their smart houses really talk to each other well? In fact, do they even like each other? Perhaps they are not talking at all!
So, when we wonder how smart technology will change people’s lives in the future, the real question is How? What will these changes mean for us, our families, our co-workers and others whose lives affect us? Will lives be better or worse?
To be more specific, how might smart technology affect students and their ability to learn more effectively in a global knowledge economy? And how might smart technology change the way we deal with the elderly, which in Korea is becoming a serious concern? Would smart technology really improve health care and how we deliver services in a time of global scares over epidemics and antibiotic-resistant viruses? And finally, would smart technology offer a ladder for people around the world to climb out of poverty and take a productive role in the new global economy?
Essentially, the question is not whether smart technology will change the ways we all work and live, but how it will change them. Of course, no one can predict those changes with 100% accuracy. People often begin wondering about the future when they feel that things around them are changing at faster and faster rates, while they themselves seem to have less and less influence over or understanding of the changes that are happening. At times it seems that our vision of the coming future is anything but clear—that there are always more unexpected events than expected ones and even things that happen far away soon come to affect our lives in ways they never did before.
If this sounds like a description what you see going on around you, then you are not alone. Many people feel this way and really don’t know what to do about it. In this article, I am going to talk about smart technology and the changes it may bring over the next decade and beyond. The way that I approach this question would in fact work for any question about the future. There will be no magic vision of the future here, only an inquiry into what might happen.
Assumptions that the future will be much like the past deserve to be challenged. In fact, we can expect that it will be much different; but how exactly? Answering these kinds of questions demands new and different tools and technologies, but they also demand new kinds of thinking and behavior. This means broadening not only our expectations, but also our sources of information: talking to new informants, listening to new explanations, and generally looking at the world around us with new vision. Essentially, this means beginning to explore the future; that is, proactively going out to look for it instead of just letting it happen to you, and actually thinking about the kind of world you want to live in—and how to make such a future happen.
The world of 2011, is experiencing the most rapid and extensive social and technological change in human history. Demographic shifts, global immigration, environmental collapse and climate disasters, economic booms and busts are all happening worldwide and simultaneously. They may be moving at different rates and directions in different places, but they are happening, and the challenge is to make sense out of the patterns of change and respond effectively, so as to both maximize opportunities and minimize the threats.
As has been said, one of the biggest challenges is gaining the skills to understand an increasingly complex world. This is not a simple matter, as different types of skills are required to understand different processes and problems. What is more, different people learn new skills in different ways. So a range of tools will be required, and this leads us to wonder if smart technology can be useful in matching the relevant tools to the appropriate learners and learning styles.
For example, it is becoming clearer that many male students worldwide seem to learn better by doing—what is also called psychomotor learning or kinetic learning. Other students are largely cognitive learners, which means they learn by reading and working abstractly on their own; they are more systemic thinkers and understand how various factors fit together. Finally, there are also affective learners, those who evaluate new ideas in social or emotional contexts. They learn well from stories and by working in teams.
The real point here is that custom-tailored lesson plans are well within the capability of smart technologies. The real challenge is for schools to decide to begin using smart technologies in new and innovative ways. The ideal is to combine the insights of each of these learning styles—and others—as each supplies its own part of the complete picture via social networks and team-learning approaches. While some researchers say that classroom productivity has not really risen with increased computer-driven learning, this learning has not been especially innovative to date. Instead, it has been a case of simply putting old ideas into new bottles.
For example, a great deal of research is now focused on assessing how effective gaming has been as a tool for teaching new skills, particularly analytical thinking, team building (for multiplayer games especially), multitasking, problem solving under stress, etc.. Despite its potential, gaming is not yet widely used in the classroom. While adding a social dynamic has been shown to increase learning retention and to speed conceptual acquisition of new ideas, social networking software is still often viewed as a classroom disruption. What needs to be done instead is to focus on developing educational applications based upon these platforms so as to offer productive educational opportunities for students within a context that works for them, whether they are young students or adult learners.
Increased research and development is needed on how smart technologies can enhance this effort, with both qualitative and quantitative assessments of learning outcomes. While most often discussed in the context of public school students from 4 to 18 years of age, it also applies to college students. This is especially true as we see the number of college students in residential campus settings declining worldwide (as a percentage of total enrollment), and a rapid increase in the number of midcareer adult college students. The growth of subject-area chat rooms and asynchronous discussion groups adds to the potential for smart technology to enrich and shape this trend for the future. Finally, of course, there is the growing number of workers employed outside the traditional workplace. It is expected that, by 2015, 30% of Korean public employees will be working from home. Again, smart technology and broadband can improve productivity and effectiveness immensely.
Another area that shows great promise, especially in environmental learning, is the growth of child-guided learning. Instead of the teacher being the learning provider and guide, it is the student who takes the lead. This approach has shown a great deal of promise in the United States and elsewhere, especially in problem-solution settings at the local level. In these student-run projects, the problem and solution are chosen by the student, with teachers and adult volunteers (especially expert mentors) serving as resources and partners at best. While the student solution choices are not uniformly successful, the levels of learning, retention and cognitive understanding are much higher than through other methods, and mistakes are utilized to refine and improve the solution approaches.
Skills for the Future
Looking at education applications for smart technology raises a much broader question. What kind of citizen do we what to see in the next global generation? What sorts of skills and abilities should they have, not only to succeed personally, but also to enrich our communities and their home countries?
I would suggest that the following skills sets will be essential for a better global future and that smart technologies could have a vital role in helping to develop and enhance these skills in both students and learning adults.
Communication skills are self-evident, and have been at the core of smart technology since its inception as a broadband enhancer. But in this context, communications involves not just passive reception but active listening, emotional intelligence and language skills in our increasingly globalized world.
Scientific ability involves not merely subject area training, but also acquiring the ability to judge the validity of results and developing baseline curiosity.
Personal discipline and focus are problem-solving skills essential in this challenge filled world.
Reasoning involves logic as well as the ability to question assumptions, to understand large complex systems and to interpret context.
Creativity—the ability to create knowledge—lies at the base of all product development in our global knowledge economy, as does the ingenuity to envision multi-application approaches for expanding the usefulness of a single product.
Foresight involves future awareness, imagination and an understanding of sustainability.
Self-knowledge is a critical skill, as it lies at the center of social intelligence and involves the essential quality of empathy in an increasingly crowded world.
Civic understanding provides a feel for how the social contract actually works when we unite it with effective public problem solving skills.
Character skills are not just ethical commitments but involve actions taken to enhance good will and civil behavior—based at heart on patience and self-discipline.
Leadership is not just a skill involving engagement and persuasion to seize opportunity effectively, but it also demands moral qualities such as a commitment to transparency and authenticity.
Global intelligence includes the use of cultural IQ and diplomatic skills to overcome polarization to identify and act for the common good.
At the heart of smart technology is the ability to impart functional learning in order to build the set of skills we have just discussed. And at the heart of this macro skill set is our intense need to meet and offset the raging conflicts that characterize the 21st Century. These conflicts are not merely byproducts of misunderstanding or inadequate communications; they are also driven by system imbalances.
Conflict is often ignited by inequities in resources, income, technical understanding and access to knowledge of all types. While new technology continues to develop solutions to existing problems, complex counter factors often create new problems. For example, while growing global prosperity, especially in those countries termed developing nations, is a positive outcome of technology and the flattening world, the side effects of this same trend include global warming and climate change, unmanaged waste products, water shortages and drought, and continuing population growth. Once again, smart technology has the potential to help us manage these global problems.
There is little doubt that smart technology has the capacity to manage our future. We can expect an increase of more than a 100,000% in computer processing power per unit cost over the next 15 years, in spite of concerns about the limits to Moore’s law. Within 25 years, a single computer will equal the raw computing power of the human brain, and within 50 years will equal the combined power of all human brains. The question is, what will we ask this genie in a bottle to do for us? What will be our three wishes?
Certainly, we are off to a good start in terms of a global technology community with a commitment to the common good. The Open Source programming movement contains over a million programmers worldwide who are making new tools available to humankind at little or no cost. The MIT OpenCourseWare program and its clones are making quality technical education available worldwide under the free content banner. And in terms of technology for the public good, South Korea led the last UN survey of examples of effective e-government in 2010. This is also mirrored in the growing trend toward democratization in business governance and employee involvement in decision making, and to distributed co-creation, which is beginning to spark innovation in even the most conservative and tradition-bound cultures.
This latter development, driven by the broadband robustness of global connectivity, has empowered new stakeholders in an enormous range of situations, including the growth of participatory research and development prototypes in the private sector. These open innovation platforms are creating independent outside groups as large as 200 entities collaborating on private sector proprietary projects.
Many of these projects also address social problems, illustrating the ability of smart technology to assist in forging solutions and driving needed change. But smart technology is not magic. It cannot bring about beneficial change on its own. The dynamics of the marketplace, the laws of a country, its bureaucratic regulations and even the culture of a people and their willingness to embrace change all have a strong impact on how—or indeed if—challenging situations lead to positive outcomes..
A good example are the pollution issues involved in climate change, environmental health and economic robustness. Even if a completely effective electric car were here today, public willingness to purchase and drive them, private sector willingness to build an infrastructure of recharging stations, and government willingness to make those actions economically viable are all necessary parts of the equation.
Not all countries will be able to match South Korea’s commitment to putting 30,000 changing stations in place by 2030. But one of the clear components of such dramatic change is education—of the public, of the private sector and of a country’s leadership. Once again, this is a perfect task for the persuasive and informative capabilities of smart technology.
This of course does not mean that all of South Korea’s social problems are melting away. Many still remain. But the potential for positive progress with the aid of smart technology is significant. Much has been said about the growth of an aging population in South Korea: By 2050, life expectancy will be almost 84 years, and there will be, for the first time in history, more people over 60 than under 15. It is not clear how many of these people will be in health-care facilities, living at home, or even still in the workplace. What is clear, though, is that smart technology will be essential for dealing effectively with these developments.
Telemedicine will make aging in place—i.e., in one’s own home—viable, with wearable or implantable monitoring devices and with smart homes where even the floors have built-in sensors that can assist in medical diagnosis and testing. Automation of household tasks, combined with friendly advice and protection—from refrigerators that plan meals and order food to bathrooms that constantly sample body fluids and dispense medicine as appropriate—offer just a few examples of how the marriage of smart mobile computing and broadband information sharing can improve quality of life.
I have been talking about smart technology largely in the context of Korea, because that is where we are. But while South Korea leads the world in terms of broadband penetration, Asia as a whole leads the world in terms of absolute numbers of people using the Internet. China alone is growing at the 3G level by 1,000% each year. We have to ask ourselves what this is going to mean in a country like China, which has always expressed concerns about the kinds of change that communications technologies might bring to its culture. It is clear that future progress in broadband/ smart technologies can only serve to both increase and accelerate such change.
It is an old saying that new technology “rewires conduct.” And this is especially true of communications technologies. It has certainly proven true in the United States, where each new innovation has gone through an evolutionary process as users first adopt and then adapt each new tool that comes along to better serve their own purposes. The cameras on cell phones went from a diverting novelty to an essential tool, sharing lives and building an almost constant archive of the most mundane activity. They have even increasingly provided a near real-time record of disasters and other historic incidents. Facebook and its clones started as a way for old or disconnected friends to reconnect. It soon became a medium for self-invention or reinvention and expanded to emerge today as a true multi-level entertainment and information venue. Even Twitter and its extended family of technology followers has evolved from a constant contact option for casual chat and self-promotion into a true news medium in its own right. Twitter is now one of the most effective disaster relief and political crisis tools in history.
In order to objectively evaluate the maturation of technologies, we must also take into account the dark side of their evolution. The hijacking of Facebook pages for monetary gain or malicious gossip is but the beginning of hard times, for smartphones and other PDA technology could easily become the next victims of criminal or destructive activity. Consider, too, the telemedicine networks we just waxed positive about: How reliable will they actually be? Could medical information system terrorism or extortion become a new business line for criminals? Clearly another social goal of smart technology must be not just reacting to problems but also proactively anticipating and preventing problems before they can occur.
Another concern is what has been termed by Paul David “the productivity paradox.” What he means is that a new technology, such as global smart/broadband, does not reach a transformational turning point within an economy (where productivity begins to accelerate rapidly) until it reaches a sufficient level of saturation or penetration. While it is not yet clear what that level would be in a global economy, it is certainly reasonable that specific countries currently lacking South Korea’s resources and the political commitment will find it difficult to fund and motivate the transformations necessary to join the “Smart Era” as a full partner.
That is, of course, unless there is some “new economy” dynamic at work as a side effect of the growth of connective technology networks, even at less than optimum smart/broadband levels of penetration. As we have noted, Internet and conventional cell-phone growth worldwide has been phenomenal (and developing countries have grown at four times the rate of developed ones, with Nokia continuing to lead the charge in terms of affordability), and it continues to climb. In addition, new economic models of industrial ecology (which involves finding new uses for materials that were previously considered useless and bothersome waste products) are beginning to penetrate the global knowledge economy. Various forms of what has been called “data exhaust” (such as user patterns data for small scale credit cards or even conventional cell phones) are beginning to develop their own micro economies. So is the process of crowd sourcing micro tasks and paying for them through what is being called “mobile wallets,” which does not involve banks the way that credit cards do. (This is being done today in countries like Ecuador and Kenya.)
At the other end of the scale are prosperous regions that might be termed “modern city states,” such as London, Singapore and Stockholm, which are taking the saturation of smart/broadband to new levels with total saturation. Using the technology as a “fix all,” they are installing systems to manage traffic congestion, improve mass transit, control water use and electric power grids, and even map crime patterns as they occur. This latter effort is being aided by the growing location-awareness of GPS circuits in smartphones and the collection of user movement patterns (sometimes without those users’ permission).
But is all this just the beginning? Will 2020 bring levels of saturation globally sufficient to make real such visions as the “Measured Society” or the “Internet of Things,” which has been envisioned by HP Labs, among others? This would involve a planetwide smart network of sensors able to constantly track a wide range of factors—such as pollution by pesticides and pathogens, disease outbreaks, severe weather, earthquakes, climate change and so on—and use the data obtained both to build patterns and to assess system dynamics. In such an environment, the geo-awareness of one’s smartphone would be one small part in a global net that tests our present imagination to conceive.
Even more provocative is the growing move away from machine computing to smart bio platforms. This is several steps beyond the Sparsh application from MIT Media Lab, which appears to transfer data from computer to computer by using your thumb (though the transfer actually occurs within the “cloud” and your thumb merely serves to mark the sending and receiving machines). It is also beyond the prototype biochips that can be printed on flexible plastic wrap. No, the next step will be calculating genes and mixtures of human blood and “memristors,” as the barriers between computing machines and the computer–human hybrid begin to drop.
This leads to the question: “How are we changing or being changed by our use of smart technology?” With social networking now connecting around one-third of the world population (not yet evenly distributed, of course), the social patterns common to social networking are becoming more prevalent. By this I mean connections that are immediate, informal and abbreviated—with connection to everyone you know and, at the same instant, to no one in particular. Moreover, there is another well-publicized phenomenon to consider: decline in average human memory. How many phone numbers do you still know by heart? And ask yourself this: Are decision support applications morphing into decision automation, especially in the case of commercial decisions—the kind which cost you money!
How accustomed are we becoming to being influenced and persuaded, as trusted word-of-mouth recommendations and peer advice comes increasingly via the Internet from people you do not actually know? And advertisers not only know what salad dressing is in your refrigerator, but also whose house you slept at last night.
As such long-range diagnostic skills develop, researchers grow ever more confident in their ability to spot the local thought leaders in any network, to diagnose mental illness from phone use, and even to track epidemics from communication and movement patterns, using smartphone data. It has been suggested that some conditions, like obesity, are a form of social contagion and therefore can be predicted by smartphone data. On the other side of medical diagnosis, hardware/software applications will soon be available that will allow your smartphone to use ultrasound to monitor your unborn child in the womb or to check for a broken bone as well as conduct a full range of blood analysis in just a few minutes, then send the results to your doctor immediately and automatically.
Ultimately, this implies that such undertakings as public-health monitoring, urban transport planning and developing new marketing strategies can all be guided by smart technology use patterns, whether you provide them willingly or unwittingly. Once again, these are choices involving the future of smart technology, and these choices cannot be made in a reasonable way without a full understanding of all the options and their implications. As I said at the beginning, I am not predicting here—I am just raising questions.
What I am also doing is pointing out all of the marvelous potential that smart technology offers humankind, in terms of improving out lives, our education, our environment, our economies and even our old age. While the ongoing improvement in the design and delivery of smart content by the entertainment and news media can be taken for granted, many of these other improvements will require political, cultural and even technological commitments to make them happen. They may not always provide immediate financial benefits for their initiators, but they can surely improve the world for the benefit of us all.
So what else do we conclude? For one, smart technology is not standing still. It is leaping ahead in all directions, and many, many changes will result from this robust behavior. If we want to understand more about the results of these changes, we need to pay attention to the areas we are concerned about. To comprehend the impact on any given system—medicine and aging for example—requires an understanding of demographics, new technologies, economics and health-care psychology. And these are only a few of the areas and systems we need to understand. As well, you need to examine (as opposed to just assuming) how all of those factors interact and affect one another. Finally, as you design solutions to problems, do not assume that the problem is going to stand still. Change is constant, and the search for viable solutions demands flexibility in thinking and the creative ability to detect and adjust to patterns of change as these emerge. So my advice is to look—and keep looking!
About the Author
Timothy Mack is the president of the World Future Society and the editor of the Society's academic journal World Future Review