Bespeak Skillfully and Carry a Nanoscopic Stick


When I was about 13 or so, my father read an article somewhere about the best careers for the future.  Near the top of the list of recommendations were computers.  My dad had the foresight to get me in front of a machine (a Commodore Pet) at work as soon as he could, and also bought a TI 99/4-A home computer for my brother and me to bang away on, which we summarily proceeded to do.  This is one reason why we both landed in Silicon Valley some 15-20 years later, and flourished.  I’ve often wondered, if that article were written today, what advice it would give to parents…

Knowledge of computers and programming is still a useful skill today, and will likely remain so for quite some time.  But those kinds of skills are just table stakes now.  So yes, make sure your kids learn something about the inner workings of computer systems, get them a solid foundation in science and engineering, absolutely have them master their math and statistics, and above all, prepare them for a lifetime of learning.  But to really set them up to succeed as adults, I’d also suggest something you may not have thought of: make sure they have a firm grounding in the liberal arts.  Because they will most likely live their life as “designers,” “makers,” and “bespeakers.”

Looking out 20 years is difficult in this age of accelerating change.  If you believe, as I do, many of the tenants of the Singularitarians, the year 2032 will be so utterly different than the present that it may seem daunting to try to predict a viable educational strategy for a young adult coming of age in those times.  In order to make my case for liberal arts, I therefore need to don my futurist cap and take a brief detour to describe the most probable state of the world in 20 years.

Some technological advancements that will likely happen by 2032 (hold on to your hat, this is a wild ride):

  • Robots will be ubiquitous, and will have taken over many of the skilled chores we now outsource to cheap labor markets (either at home or abroad), including producing our physical goods, growing our food, discovering and extracting natural resources, recycling our waste, and piloting our vehicles (although the need to transport both humans and goods will be significantly curtailed).
  • Low cost, local, on demand manufacturing will be commonplace.  Need a new gadget?  Just place your order, and it will be 3D-printed and assembled at a nearby convenience store for pickup or delivery in hours or minutes.  Some staples like disposable towels or razor blades or, well, staples may even be “printable” using an at-home “replicator” (chalk up another correct prediction to Star Trek!)
  • Sustainable energy will be ubiquitous and cheap.  Why?  Because we’ll be way past peak oil at that point, so we will have no choice but to solve the problem.
  • Many of our common gadgets today will be woefully obsolete.  Smartphone?  TV?  Camera?  All replaced by glasses/contacts/implants/neural interfaces that can beam images directly to the eyes or retina or neocortex, have an array of built-in sensors, and have access to 1000’s of times the computing power and storage available in today’s gadgets.
  • We will spend the vast majority of our waking hours (which will likely be most of our hours, as the need for sleep will have been largely eliminated) in either virtual reality or augmented reality.  These artificial worlds, populated by lifelike avatars of our own design that represent us, will seem as real as the real world, and will be just as important.  And we won’t be the only inhabitants – there will also be artificial intelligences to act as assistants, companions, and compadres.  And the augmented world will be populated by real-world objects that hook in to the global info net, using a variety of sensors to add to the unfathomable stream of messages on the global communications network.
  • Nanotechnology and biotechnology will have solved most, if not all, of the major sources of disease and illness, including aging.  People will begin to correct and augment their physical and mental abilities with technology, and true cyborgs and bionic humans will walk the streets.
  • Many mundane mental skills will effectively be outsourced, and thus would be “downloadable” on demand.  For example, real-time universal translation between any two languages, in any context, in any modality (verbal, written, Braille) will be ubiquitous.

All that in 20 years?  We’ll see, but even if we don’t quite make it to that point by then, we’ll at least be well on our way.  Of course, there are many other aspects to life on earth (politics, climate change, population growth or decline) that will define the culture and zeitgeist of the time, but one thing is for sure – it will be vastly different than how we live today. And keep in mind, even if things aren’t quite as I describe in 20 years, they will be at some point in your child’s lifetime, especially considering that they will have a very, very long life.

So what happens when physical items are commoditized, energy is cheap, everyone and everything around the world is connected at all times, manual labor is minimized, and it doesn’t pay to learn shallow mental skills?  Intellectual Property happens.  In this brave new world, knowledge will truly be power, and manifestations of thought will be the new currency.  Which brings me back around to the original topic of this article.  To be a part of this new economy, your children will need to be creators – people who use their brains to gather knowledge, synthesize it, and create something of value for others to use or experience.  And the artifacts that they directly create will be almost exclusively digital in nature.

It’s nearly impossible for me to know in any detail what exactly these jobs will be, but I can try to imagine a few.  For example, new kinds of musicians will come into existence, who will be more like composers, combining all sorts of music on the fly, in response to their live audience, and who use algorithms to adapt the music based on the “vibe” coming from their listeners – even if there’s only one person in the audience.  (Modern DJs and music-recommendation services both presage this concept).  New kinds of product designers will custom-build designs of a wide range of products for individuals, and then be able to turn around and re-sell those designs to wider audiences or negotiate higher prices with their patrons for design exclusivity rights.  Virtual world designers will be in high demand, and will need a wide range of skills from visual design to narrative skills (Modern video game designers are their precursors).  “Beamers” (as Ray Kurzweil calls them) will make their living by allowing their customers to live through them vicariously in ways that were never previously available, by literally streaming their sensory inputs in a way that makes the end-consumer feel as if they were inside the the beamer’s body (like in the film “Brainstorm”).  Nanotechnicians will design and build machines for specific purposes on the atomic level (like in the novel “The Diamond Age”).  Yes, it all sounds like something out of a SciFi novel.  In fact it sounds a lot like the civilization described by Arthur C. Clarke in 1956 in “The City and the Stars,” except this world is only decades away instead of a billion years in the future.

Some things have always been true about humans, and these will, of course, not change anytime soon.  People love a good story, they need social interaction, they enjoy beauty and elegance, they enjoy experiencing the world through their senses, and they have an overwhelming need to both learn and teach.  As our physical needs and desires become easier to satisfy, our emphasis will naturally shift towards producing other, less tangible things that fulfill these essential human needs.  And, more importantly, both the supply and demand will move into the “tail” of the distribution.  In other words, not only will people demand more customized, even bespoke, products and services, but by the laws of supply and demand there will naturally emerge more people to supply them.  Those will be our children – both the producers and consumers.

What skills would such designers, makers, and “bespeakers” need?  Clearly they’ll need a command of the tools – computers, nanotech, biotech, and their derivatives.  More importantly, though, they’ll need to know how to manage the creative process, relate to others, communicate their ideas, tell a good story, draw a good picture, relate everything to the rich history we have as humans, and build a philosophy of living in this changed world.  In short, they will need a solid grounding in the liberal arts.

A second renaissance is coming – will your child thrive?  Will you?


2012-01-19 P.S. This article was just published – my favorite quote: “being more fully human is what individuals will need to stay one step ahead of computers”.  The Career Of The Future Doesn’t Include A 20-Year Plan. It’s More Like Four. | Fast Company

2013-02-07 I just finished reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, which comes to the same conclusions as I do here, but using different sources of evidence.  He also develops the types of “right-brain” skills that will be necessary, and ways to sharpen them.  Recommended.