Skills for the 21st Century

Cognitive and Literacy Skills for Success in a Fast-Paced Technological Age

What If…Computers Could Converse Like Human Beings?

Posted by durencls on July 1, 2010

In our original presentation, and in at least one subsequent post, we brought up the idea of the computer surpassing the abilities of the human brain by 2040 – referring to Kurzweil and the Law of Accelerating Returns (which is based, in part, on Moore’s law regarding the growth of computing hardware).

Well, according to this article in the New York Times, it seems IBM thinks it is one step closer to making this a reality – it has a computer that can play, and win Jeopardy:

Code-named “Watson” after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, the IBM computing system is designed to rival the human mind’s ability to understand the actual meaning behind words, distinguish between relevant and irrelevant content, and ultimately, demonstrate confidence to deliver precise final answers. (From the IBM web site)

For more information on Watson – read the entirely of the NYT article – it is quite long.  You can also “play” Jeopardy against Watson  if you’d like (I won, but only barely). 

In addition to the NYT article (which came from a blog post I found in my reader when I returned from vacation), I was interested to note this recent article (through Twitter) from the Pew Research Center: Imagining Life in 2050: Public Sees a Future Full of Promise & Peril; Amazing Science, Familiar Threats

In this article, and in the full report, I found some interesting public opinions about the future and technology 40 years from now:

Fully 81% [of Americans] think computer science will have progressed to the point where a computer will probably or definitely be able to carry on a conversation indistinguishable from that of a human being – passing the so-called “Turing test” – by mid-century.

40% [of Americans] think computer chips will be embedded in Americans for identification [by 2050].

In addition, over 60% of Americans say by 2050 paper editions of newspapers will no longer exist; paper money will definitely or probably cease to exist, with all financial transactions being electronic; and almost no one will send personal letters in the mail .

And this got me thinking – what would be the effect of these kinds of changes on skills needed in the workplace?  What would happen if:

  • You could phrase questions to a computer just like you would a human? And get back a response that included intuitive leaps?
  • Computers had  processing power equal to or better than the human brain? Without all our frailties, tendency to get emotional or distracted? Without our biases and prejudices?
  • The world was generally paperless?  Most reading is done online? Would reading itself be old-fashioned? Would you listen or ‘view’ things rather than read?
  • People all had an embedded identification chip? (With a GPS? Or even direct connection to the internet at all times?) Hmmm… I suspect these will be voluntary to start – limited only to the very wealthy to start. When would they be mandated, do you think?

How would these types of changes affect what cognitive and “technology” skills you would need? As an amateur futurist, I predict (for 2050, mind you):

  • Humans would be needed to do fewer “routine” or “basic skill” jobs. Computers could handle most human-interaction tasks at a fast-food restaurant, for example, or customer service/tech support calls/tasks.
  • Computers would begin to design more innovative computers faster than humans could. Meaning the pace of technology advances/changes would increase even further.
  • Writing things by hand will seem old-fashioned and quaint. No one will write in ‘cursive’ any longer – just as no one writes in Copperplate now.  (Some folks will be able to write in cursive – but they won’t bother.)
  • Reading (or writing) long blocks of unbroken text – 100’s of pages – will be uncommon and limited to older, previously written materials.  New stories will be told in computer generated images. Visual literacy skills will be very important. (Hmm, this means a new employment opportunity might be ‘converting’ old materials to visuals.)
  • People will begin to have a more and more personal relationship with computers/technology. They will begin to feel it is a part of them, and ‘naked’ without a connection to ‘the network.’

In short, cognitive skills – the ability to think, reason, decide, evaluate, innovate, create, etc. – will be even MORE important than they are today. The ability to read and write would be less important than it is today.  With technology interfaces more intuitive and pervasive, what we traditionally think of as “tech skills” will likely be less important. Between now and 2050?  Folks will still need to read, write, type, and ‘figure out” non-intuitive technology tools, but more and more of these types of tasks will be done by the technology around them.  Employers will be looking for folks who can do what computers still cannot – be creative, innovative, collaborative, and/or provide a caring, human connection.

Before you dismiss me as  just a wishful thinking geek or radical technologist, think for a moment on this time line:

  • Today our focus for the 21st century is on *everyone* having Technology skills, post-secondary education/training, or career-readiness skills.  If you don’t have SOME specialized post-secondary training, you are struggling to make a living.
  • 40 years ago, the focus was on getting folks HS diplomas and into college. Those without a HS degree were shifted to lower paying, less attractive jobs.  College degrees got you the REALLY good jobs.
  • Only 90 years ago, in America, everyone was legally required to learn to read and write (and calculate) – those that could not, began to hide their lack of skills or worked lower level  jobs.
  • 150 years ago, in America, the ability to read was considered so powerful and so enlightening that it was a CRIME to teach reading to slaves – over 1/10th our total population in 1860.
  • 500 years ago, distribution of the printed word to the common man became cheap and easy, and non-secular writings began to flourish – the ability to read and write made you superior as an employee for many work sectors – but these abilities also caused suspicion and conflict for 100s of years to come.
  • 1000 years ago, only scholars read and wrote, and most of it was secular (in the western world at least) – you could gain great wealth and power without ever reading or writing a word. 
  • 2500 years ago, Socrates argued the written word as inferior to spoken discourse for learning and thinking – what skills were thus needed for academic success? 
  • 5000 years ago, the first alphabet was created – what workforce skills were important then?  What skills were needed to “succeed?”

The scary part is – I could still be alive in 2050.  I’d be 89 – what WILL I see then?  My daughter would be 43 – same age I am now.  What will SHE live to see?


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