In the daily edtech trenches, the forest is easily lost for the trees. Technological minutiae in the classroom carry such immense consequences that it can be hard to think beyond tomorrow’s software update, nevermind next year’s LMS rollout. In his opening keynote at the ISTE 2016 conference, noted physicist Dr. Michio Kaku showed educators the forest that he and others believe will encircle the classroom of the future.
And oh, what a forest it might be. According to Dr. Kaku, talking wallpaper, data-reading toilets and other technologies that seem like miracles today are a mere fifty years away. All of it, he said, will have an impact on the world of education.
The Bellco Theater at the Colorado Convention Center resembled the set of the Tonight Show as much as it did a conference keynote. The central stage featured a projector screen the size of several blackboards, a live band and a variety of furniture for interviews. The hosts even made a costume change mid-presentation.
ISTE’s hosts spared no superlative describing the keynote speaker. Upon finally taking the stage, Dr. Kaku enthused, “After such a great introduction, I can’t wait to hear the speaker myself!”
Michio Kaku was born in 1947 in California, to Japanese parents who met in a World War II internment camp. The young man displayed an early aptitude for physics: in high school he used steel and copper wire to build his own particle accelerator. After graduating from Harvard, he completed his PhD in physics at the University of California, Berkeley and eventually became a professor at the City College of New York, where he has taught since 1984.
Beyond publishing the research typical of a physicst, Dr. Kaku is also the author of several books on how technology will affect the world that we live in. Most recently,
The Future of the Mind (2014), a discussion of advances in neuroscience, reached #1 on the New York Times’ bestseller list. He also hosts the national radio shows “Explorations with Michio Kaku” and “Science Fantastic,” where he discusses science’s effects on the world.
In a speech ranging from artificial intelligence to jokes about colonoscopies, Dr. Kaku outlined his vision for the future of humanity. In his telling, fifty years from now technology will have upended every aspect of our current life and society. He grouped these advances into three broad areas: The digitization of information, machine learning and medicine.
Dr. Kaku envisions a world where the Internet—and therefore information—is both everywhere and nowhere. Advances in technology will allow scientists to connect every part of our lives with every other part, he explained. Our clothing, vehicles, medicine, and even our toilets will gather and share data. The ubiquity of information, however, means that we will no longer interact with the internet in the physical world; users might be able to read a book, or a whole library, by blinking commands into a smart contact lens.
He also predicted that machine learning will combine with advances in tech to allow computers to perform some of the tasks now required of human beings. Dr. Kaku imagined a man waking up in the night with chest pain. Rather than rushing to the hospital, a body scan and a quick consultation with a “robo-doc” might reveal that the pain is simply heartburn. “Robo-lawyers” could provide similarly quick consultations with clients.
Finally, Dr. Kaku described the advances that medical science will have on our society. In addition to 3D-printed organs and advanced surgical machines, he related how far brain science might advance. Even recent brain science can be startling: In one study, researchers implanted a false memory into a mouse’s brain. (Cue
”Inception” theme music.)
But Now, Back to the Classroom
Dr. Kaku’s speech was light on the specifics of how such upheaval might affect students and educators. He did, however, outline broad recommendations for all those struggling to prepare students for a future featuring self-driving cars and smart wallpaper.
First, he suggested that teachers steer students into the types of careers that would be available fifty years from now. “The job market is going to be turned upside down,” he predicted, adding that “middle jobs” like paralegals would be phased out over time. Specifically, he called out the medical industry as a hot sector for future careers.
To prepare students for these roles, Dr. Kaku recommended that educators “stress concepts and principles, rather than the drudgery of memorization.” In a world where the Library of Congress is available on a contact lens, or where the memory of learning calculus can be implanted, students must be taught how to use the petabytes of information at their disposal. The jobs that cannot be automated, he noted, will be those that require creativity and experience, “Remember, robots are [just] adding machines – they do sums faster than you do, giving the illusion that they’re intelligent.”
Dr. Kaku does not, however, envision a world where robots have banished educators from the classroom; he acknowledged the widely-noted shortcomings of today’s MOOC’s. Instead, he described the mentorship and interaction with other students that pupils will always need, “One of the important things that [teachers] can impart to a student is to be a mentor.”
Dr. Kaku’s vision of the future supports many of the trends discussed around edtech water coolers today: Educators and schools are working to bind traditional schooling and career training. Dr. Kaku’s comments on creativity and experience conjured images of project-based learning. Finally, his discussion of mentorship called to mind the “guide on the side” model of education.
Whether focused on education or healthcare, Dr. Kaku painted an unflinchingly optimistic of the future. That, surely, is a forest in which many educators would like to teach.
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