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#433400 A Model for the Future of Education, and ...

As kids worldwide head back to school, I’d like to share my thoughts on the future of education.

Bottom line, how we educate our kids needs to radically change given the massive potential of exponential tech (e.g. artificial intelligence and virtual reality).

Without question, the number one driver for education is inspiration. As such, if you have a kid age 8–18, you’ll want to get your hands on an incredibly inspirational novel written by my dear friend Ray Kurzweil called Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine.

Danielle offers boys and girls a role model of a young woman who uses smart technologies and super-intelligence to partner with her friends to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. It’s perfect to inspire anyone to pursue their moonshot.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the future of educating kids, and a summary of my white paper thoughts….

Just last year, edtech (education technology) investments surpassed a record high of 9.5 billion USD—up 30 percent from the year before.

Already valued at over half a billion USD, the AI in education market is set to surpass 6 billion USD by 2024.

And we’re now seeing countless new players enter the classroom, from a Soul Machines AI teacher specializing in energy use and sustainability to smart “lab schools” with personalized curricula.

As my two boys enter 1st grade, I continue asking myself, given the fact that most elementary schools haven’t changed in many decades (perhaps a century), what do I want my kids to learn? How do I think about elementary school during an exponential era?

This post covers five subjects related to elementary school education:

Five Issues with Today’s Elementary Schools
Five Guiding Principles for Future Education
An Elementary School Curriculum for the Future
Exponential Technologies in our Classroom
Mindsets for the 21st Century

Excuse the length of this post, but if you have kids, the details might be meaningful. If you don’t, then next week’s post will return to normal length and another fun subject.

Also, if you’d like to see my detailed education “white paper,” you can view or download it here.

Let’s dive in…

Five Issues With Today’s Elementary Schools
There are probably lots of issues with today’s traditional elementary schools, but I’ll just choose a few that bother me most.

Grading: In the traditional education system, you start at an “A,” and every time you get something wrong, your score gets lower and lower. At best it’s demotivating, and at worst it has nothing to do with the world you occupy as an adult. In the gaming world (e.g. Angry Birds), it’s just the opposite. You start with zero and every time you come up with something right, your score gets higher and higher.
Sage on the Stage: Most classrooms have a teacher up in front of class lecturing to a classroom of students, half of whom are bored and half of whom are lost. The one-teacher-fits-all model comes from an era of scarcity where great teachers and schools were rare.
Relevance: When I think back to elementary and secondary school, I realize how much of what I learned was never actually useful later in life, and how many of my critical lessons for success I had to pick up on my own (I don’t know about you, but I haven’t ever actually had to factor a polynomial in my adult life).
Imagination, Coloring inside the Lines: Probably of greatest concern to me is the factory-worker, industrial-era origin of today’s schools. Programs are so structured with rote memorization that it squashes the originality from most children. I’m reminded that “the day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” Where do we pursue crazy ideas in our schools? Where do we foster imagination?
Boring: If learning in school is a chore, boring, or emotionless, then the most important driver of human learning, passion, is disengaged. Having our children memorize facts and figures, sit passively in class, and take mundane standardized tests completely defeats the purpose.

An average of 7,200 students drop out of high school each day, totaling 1.3 million each year. This means only 69 percent of students who start high school finish four years later. And over 50 percent of these high school dropouts name boredom as the number one reason they left.

Five Guiding Principles for Future Education
I imagine a relatively near-term future in which robotics and artificial intelligence will allow any of us, from ages 8 to 108, to easily and quickly find answers, create products, or accomplish tasks, all simply by expressing our desires.

From ‘mind to manufactured in moments.’ In short, we’ll be able to do and create almost whatever we want.

In this future, what attributes will be most critical for our children to learn to become successful in their adult lives? What’s most important for educating our children today?

For me it’s about passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and grit.

Passion: You’d be amazed at how many people don’t have a mission in life… A calling… something to jolt them out of bed every morning. The most valuable resource for humanity is the persistent and passionate human mind, so creating a future of passionate kids is so very important. For my 7-year-old boys, I want to support them in finding their passion or purpose… something that is uniquely theirs. In the same way that the Apollo program and Star Trek drove my early love for all things space, and that passion drove me to learn and do.
Curiosity: Curiosity is something innate in kids, yet something lost by most adults during the course of their life. Why? In a world of Google, robots, and AI, raising a kid that is constantly asking questions and running “what if” experiments can be extremely valuable. In an age of machine learning, massive data, and a trillion sensors, it will be the quality of your questions that will be most important.
Imagination: Entrepreneurs and visionaries imagine the world (and the future) they want to live in, and then they create it. Kids happen to be some of the most imaginative humans around… it’s critical that they know how important and liberating imagination can be.
Critical Thinking: In a world flooded with often-conflicting ideas, baseless claims, misleading headlines, negative news, and misinformation, learning the skill of critical thinking helps find the signal in the noise. This principle is perhaps the most difficult to teach kids.
Grit/Persistence: Grit is defined as “passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals,” and it has recently been widely acknowledged as one of the most important predictors of and contributors to success.

Teaching your kids not to give up, to keep trying, and to keep trying new ideas for something that they are truly passionate about achieving is extremely critical. Much of my personal success has come from such stubbornness. I joke that both XPRIZE and the Zero Gravity Corporation were “overnight successes after 10 years of hard work.”

So given those five basic principles, what would an elementary school curriculum look like? Let’s take a look…

An Elementary School Curriculum for the Future
Over the last 30 years, I’ve had the pleasure of starting two universities, International Space University (1987) and Singularity University (2007). My favorite part of co-founding both institutions was designing and implementing the curriculum. Along those lines, the following is my first shot at the type of curriculum I’d love my own boys to be learning.

I’d love your thoughts, I’ll be looking for them here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/DDRWZ8R

For the purpose of illustration, I’ll speak about ‘courses’ or ‘modules,’ but in reality these are just elements that would ultimately be woven together throughout the course of K-6 education.

Module 1: Storytelling/Communications

When I think about the skill that has served me best in life, it’s been my ability to present my ideas in the most compelling fashion possible, to get others onboard, and support birth and growth in an innovative direction. In my adult life, as an entrepreneur and a CEO, it’s been my ability to communicate clearly and tell compelling stories that has allowed me to create the future. I don’t think this lesson can start too early in life. So imagine a module, year after year, where our kids learn the art and practice of formulating and pitching their ideas. The best of oration and storytelling. Perhaps children in this class would watch TED presentations, or maybe they’d put together their own TEDx for kids. Ultimately, it’s about practice and getting comfortable with putting yourself and your ideas out there and overcoming any fears of public speaking.

Module 2: Passions

A modern school should help our children find and explore their passion(s). Passion is the greatest gift of self-discovery. It is a source of interest and excitement, and is unique to each child.

The key to finding passion is exposure. Allowing kids to experience as many adventures, careers, and passionate adults as possible. Historically, this was limited by the reality of geography and cost, implemented by having local moms and dads presenting in class about their careers. “Hi, I’m Alan, Billy’s dad, and I’m an accountant. Accountants are people who…”

But in a world of YouTube and virtual reality, the ability for our children to explore 500 different possible careers or passions during their K-6 education becomes not only possible but compelling. I imagine a module where children share their newest passion each month, sharing videos (or VR experiences) and explaining what they love and what they’ve learned.

Module 3: Curiosity & Experimentation

Einstein famously said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Curiosity is innate in children, and many times lost later in life. Arguably, it can be said that curiosity is responsible for all major scientific and technological advances; it’s the desire of an individual to know the truth.

Coupled with curiosity is the process of experimentation and discovery. The process of asking questions, creating and testing a hypothesis, and repeated experimentation until the truth is found. As I’ve studied the most successful entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial companies, from Google and Amazon to Uber, their success is significantly due to their relentless use of experimentation to define their products and services.

Here I imagine a module which instills in children the importance of curiosity and gives them permission to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out.”

Further, a monthly module that teaches children how to design and execute valid and meaningful experiments. Imagine children who learn the skill of asking a question, proposing a hypothesis, designing an experiment, gathering the data, and then reaching a conclusion.

Module 4: Persistence/Grit

Doing anything big, bold, and significant in life is hard work. You can’t just give up when the going gets rough. The mindset of persistence, of grit, is a learned behavior I believe can be taught at an early age, especially when it’s tied to pursuing a child’s passion.

I imagine a curriculum that, each week, studies the career of a great entrepreneur and highlights their story of persistence. It would highlight the individuals and companies that stuck with it, iterated, and ultimately succeeded.

Further, I imagine a module that combines persistence and experimentation in gameplay, such as that found in Dean Kamen’s FIRST LEGO league, where 4th graders (and up) research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, and so on, and are challenged to develop a solution. They also must design, build, and program a robot using LEGO MINDSTORMS®, then compete on a tabletop playing field.

Module 5: Technology Exposure

In a world of rapidly accelerating technology, understanding how technologies work, what they do, and their potential for benefiting society is, in my humble opinion, critical to a child’s future. Technology and coding (more on this below) are the new “lingua franca” of tomorrow.

In this module, I imagine teaching (age appropriate) kids through play and demonstration. Giving them an overview of exponential technologies such as computation, sensors, networks, artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, genetic engineering, augmented/virtual reality, and robotics, to name a few. This module is not about making a child an expert in any technology, it’s more about giving them the language of these new tools, and conceptually an overview of how they might use such a technology in the future. The goal here is to get them excited, give them demonstrations that make the concepts stick, and then to let their imaginations run.

Module 6: Empathy

Empathy, defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” has been recognized as one of the most critical skills for our children today. And while there has been much written, and great practices for instilling this at home and in school, today’s new tools accelerate this.

Virtual reality isn’t just about video games anymore. Artists, activists, and journalists now see the technology’s potential to be an empathy engine, one that can shine spotlights on everything from the Ebola epidemic to what it’s like to live in Gaza. And Jeremy Bailenson has been at the vanguard of investigating VR’s power for good.

For more than a decade, Bailenson’s lab at Stanford has been studying how VR can make us better people. Through the power of VR, volunteers at the lab have felt what it is like to be Superman (to see if it makes them more helpful), a cow (to reduce meat consumption), and even a coral (to learn about ocean acidification).

Silly as they might seem, these sorts of VR scenarios could be more effective than the traditional public service ad at making people behave. Afterwards, they waste less paper. They save more money for retirement. They’re nicer to the people around them. And this could have consequences in terms of how we teach and train everyone from cliquey teenagers to high court judges.

Module 7: Ethics/Moral Dilemmas

Related to empathy, and equally important, is the goal of infusing kids with a moral compass. Over a year ago, I toured a special school created by Elon Musk (the Ad Astra school) for his five boys (age 9 to 14). One element that is persistent in that small school of under 40 kids is the conversation about ethics and morals, a conversation manifested by debating real-world scenarios that our kids may one day face.

Here’s an example of the sort of gameplay/roleplay that I heard about at Ad Astra, that might be implemented in a module on morals and ethics. Imagine a small town on a lake, in which the majority of the town is employed by a single factory. But that factory has been polluting the lake and killing all the life. What do you do? It’s posed that shutting down the factory would mean that everyone loses their jobs. On the other hand, keeping the factory open means the lake is destroyed and the lake dies. This kind of regular and routine conversation/gameplay allows the children to see the world in a critically important fashion.

Module 8: The 3R Basics (Reading, wRiting & aRithmetic)

There’s no question that young children entering kindergarten need the basics of reading, writing, and math. The only question is what’s the best way for them to get it? We all grew up in the classic mode of a teacher at the chalkboard, books, and homework at night. But I would argue that such teaching approaches are long outdated, now replaced with apps, gameplay, and the concept of the flip classroom.

Pioneered by high school teachers Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams in 2007, the flipped classroom reverses the sequence of events from that of the traditional classroom.

Students view lecture materials, usually in the form of video lectures, as homework prior to coming to class. In-class time is reserved for activities such as interactive discussions or collaborative work, all performed under the guidance of the teacher.

The benefits are clear:

Students can consume lectures at their own pace, viewing the video again and again until they get the concept, or fast-forwarding if the information is obvious.
The teacher is present while students apply new knowledge. Doing the homework into class time gives teachers insight into which concepts, if any, that their students are struggling with and helps them adjust the class accordingly.
The flipped classroom produces tangible results: 71 percent of teachers who flipped their classes noticed improved grades, and 80 percent reported improved student attitudes as a result.

Module 9: Creative Expression & Improvisation

Every single one of us is creative. It’s human nature to be creative… the thing is that we each might have different ways of expressing our creativity.

We must encourage kids to discover and to develop their creative outlets early. In this module, imagine showing kids the many different ways creativity is expressed, from art to engineering to music to math, and then guiding them as they choose the area (or areas) they are most interested in. Critically, teachers (or parents) can then develop unique lessons for each child based on their interests, thanks to open education resources like YouTube and the Khan Academy. If my child is interested in painting and robots, a teacher or AI could scour the web and put together a custom lesson set from videos/articles where the best painters and roboticists in the world share their skills.

Adapting to change is critical for success, especially in our constantly changing world today. Improvisation is a skill that can be learned, and we need to be teaching it early.

In most collegiate “improv” classes, the core of great improvisation is the “Yes, and…” mindset. When acting out a scene, one actor might introduce a new character or idea, completely changing the context of the scene. It’s critical that the other actors in the scene say “Yes, and…” accept the new reality, then add something new of their own.

Imagine playing similar role-play games in elementary schools, where a teacher gives the students a scene/context and constantly changes variables, forcing them to adapt and play.

Module 10: Coding

Computer science opens more doors for students than any other discipline in today’s world. Learning even the basics will help students in virtually any career, from architecture to zoology.

Coding is an important tool for computer science, in the way that arithmetic is a tool for doing mathematics and words are a tool for English. Coding creates software, but computer science is a broad field encompassing deep concepts that go well beyond coding.

Every 21st century student should also have a chance to learn about algorithms, how to make an app, or how the internet works. Computational thinking allows preschoolers to grasp concepts like algorithms, recursion and heuristics. Even if they don’t understand the terms, they’ll learn the basic concepts.

There are more than 500,000 open jobs in computing right now, representing the number one source of new wages in the US, and these jobs are projected to grow at twice the rate of all other jobs.

Coding is fun! Beyond the practical reasons for learning how to code, there’s the fact that creating a game or animation can be really fun for kids.

Module 11: Entrepreneurship & Sales

At its core, entrepreneurship is about identifying a problem (an opportunity), developing a vision on how to solve it, and working with a team to turn that vision into reality. I mentioned Elon’s school, Ad Astra: here, again, entrepreneurship is a core discipline where students create and actually sell products and services to each other and the school community.

You could recreate this basic exercise with a group of kids in lots of fun ways to teach them the basic lessons of entrepreneurship.

Related to entrepreneurship is sales. In my opinion, we need to be teaching sales to every child at an early age. Being able to “sell” an idea (again related to storytelling) has been a critical skill in my career, and it is a competency that many people simply never learned.

The lemonade stand has been a classic, though somewhat meager, lesson in sales from past generations, where a child sits on a street corner and tries to sell homemade lemonade for $0.50 to people passing by. I’d suggest we step the game up and take a more active approach in gamifying sales, and maybe having the classroom create a Kickstarter, Indiegogo or GoFundMe campaign. The experience of creating a product or service and successfully selling it will create an indelible memory and give students the tools to change the world.

Module 12: Language

A little over a year ago, I spent a week in China meeting with parents whose focus on kids’ education is extraordinary. One of the areas I found fascinating is how some of the most advanced parents are teaching their kids new languages: through games. On the tablet, the kids are allowed to play games, but only in French. A child’s desire to win fully engages them and drives their learning rapidly.

Beyond games, there’s virtual reality. We know that full immersion is what it takes to become fluent (at least later in life). A semester abroad in France or Italy, and you’ve got a great handle on the language and the culture. But what about for an eight-year-old?

Imagine a module where for an hour each day, the children spend their time walking around Italy in a VR world, hanging out with AI-driven game characters who teach them, engage them, and share the culture and the language in the most personalized and compelling fashion possible.

Exponential Technologies for Our Classrooms
If you’ve attended Abundance 360 or Singularity University, or followed my blogs, you’ll probably agree with me that the way our children will learn is going to fundamentally transform over the next decade.

Here’s an overview of the top five technologies that will reshape the future of education:

Tech 1: Virtual Reality (VR) can make learning truly immersive. Research has shown that we remember 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see, and up to 90 percent of what we do or simulate. Virtual reality yields the latter scenario impeccably. VR enables students to simulate flying through the bloodstream while learning about different cells they encounter, or travel to Mars to inspect the surface for life.

To make this a reality, Google Cardboard just launched its Pioneer Expeditions product. Under this program, thousands of schools around the world have gotten a kit containing everything a teacher needs to take his or her class on a virtual trip. While data on VR use in K-12 schools and colleges have yet to be gathered, the steady growth of the market is reflected in the surge of companies (including zSpace, Alchemy VR and Immersive VR Education) solely dedicated to providing schools with packaged education curriculum and content.

Add to VR a related technology called augmented reality (AR), and experiential education really comes alive. Imagine wearing an AR headset that is able to superimpose educational lessons on top of real-world experiences. Interested in botany? As you walk through a garden, the AR headset superimposes the name and details of every plant you see.

Tech 2: 3D Printing is allowing students to bring their ideas to life. Never mind the computer on every desktop (or a tablet for every student), that’s a given. In the near future, teachers and students will want or have a 3D printer on the desk to help them learn core science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) principles. Bre Pettis, of MakerBot Industries, in a grand but practical vision, sees a 3D printer on every school desk in America. “Imagine if you had a 3D printer instead of a LEGO set when you were a kid; what would life be like now?” asks Mr. Pettis. You could print your own mini-figures, your own blocks, and you could iterate on new designs as quickly as your imagination would allow. MakerBots are now in over 5,000 K-12 schools across the US.

Taking this one step further, you could imagine having a 3D file for most entries in Wikipedia, allowing you to print out and study an object you can only read about or visualize in VR.

Tech 3: Sensors & Networks. An explosion of sensors and networks are going to connect everyone at gigabit speeds, making access to rich video available at all times. At the same time, sensors continue to miniaturize and reduce in power, becoming embedded in everything. One benefit will be the connection of sensor data with machine learning and AI (below), such that knowledge of a child’s attention drifting, or confusion, can be easily measured and communicated. The result would be a representation of the information through an alternate modality or at a different speed.

Tech 4: Machine Learning is making learning adaptive and personalized. No two students are identical—they have different modes of learning (by reading, seeing, hearing, doing), come from different educational backgrounds, and have different intellectual capabilities and attention spans. Advances in machine learning and the surging adaptive learning movement are seeking to solve this problem. Companies like Knewton and Dreambox have over 15 million students on their respective adaptive learning platforms. Soon, every education application will be adaptive, learning how to personalize the lesson for a specific student. There will be adaptive quizzing apps, flashcard apps, textbook apps, simulation apps and many more.

Tech 5: Artificial Intelligence or “An AI Teaching Companion.” Neil Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age presents a fascinating piece of educational technology called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.”

As described by Beat Schwendimann, “The primer is an interactive book that can answer a learner’s questions (spoken in natural language), teach through allegories that incorporate elements of the learner’s environment, and presents contextual just-in-time information.

“The primer includes sensors that monitor the learner’s actions and provide feedback. The learner is in a cognitive apprenticeship with the book: The primer models a certain skill (through allegorical fairy tale characters), which the learner then imitates in real life.

“The primer follows a learning progression with increasingly more complex tasks. The educational goals of the primer are humanist: To support the learner to become a strong and independently thinking person.”

The primer, an individualized AI teaching companion is the result of technological convergence and is beautifully described by YouTuber CGP Grey in his video: Digital Aristotle: Thoughts on the Future of Education.

Your AI companion will have unlimited access to information on the cloud and will deliver it at the optimal speed to each student in an engaging, fun way. This AI will demonetize and democratize education, be available to everyone for free (just like Google), and offering the best education to the wealthiest and poorest children on the planet equally.

This AI companion is not a tutor who spouts facts, figures and answers, but a player on the side of the student, there to help him or her learn, and in so doing, learn how to learn better. The AI is always alert, watching for signs of frustration and boredom that may precede quitting, for signs of curiosity or interest that tend to indicate active exploration, and for signs of enjoyment and mastery, which might indicate a successful learning experience.

Ultimately, we’re heading towards a vastly more educated world. We are truly living during the most exciting time to be alive.

Mindsets for the 21st Century
Finally, it’s important for me to discuss mindsets. How we think about the future colors how we learn and what we do. I’ve written extensively about the importance of an abundance and exponential mindset for entrepreneurs and CEOs. I also think that attention to mindset in our elementary schools, when a child is shaping the mental “operating system” for the rest of their life, is even more important.

As such, I would recommend that a school adopt a set of principles that teach and promote a number of mindsets in the fabric of their programs.

Many “mindsets” are important to promote. Here are a couple to consider:

Nurturing Optimism & An Abundance Mindset:
We live in a competitive world, and kids experience a significant amount of pressure to perform. When they fall short, they feel deflated. We all fail at times; that’s part of life. If we want to raise “can-do” kids who can work through failure and come out stronger for it, it’s wise to nurture optimism. Optimistic kids are more willing to take healthy risks, are better problem-solvers, and experience positive relationships. You can nurture optimism in your school by starting each day by focusing on gratitude (what each child is grateful for), or a “positive focus” in which each student takes 30 seconds to talk about what they are most excited about, or what recent event was positively impactful to them. (NOTE: I start every meeting inside my Strike Force team with a positive focus.)

Finally, helping students understand (through data and graphs) that the world is in fact getting better (see my first book: Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think) will help them counter the continuous flow of negative news flowing through our news media.

When kids feel confident in their abilities and excited about the world, they are willing to work harder and be more creative.

Tolerance for Failure:
Tolerating failure is a difficult lesson to learn and a difficult lesson to teach. But it is critically important to succeeding in life.

Astro Teller, who runs Google’s innovation branch “X,” talks a lot about encouraging failure. At X, they regularly try to “kill” their ideas. If they are successful in killing an idea, and thus “failing,” they save lots of time, money and resources. The ideas they can’t kill survive and develop into billion-dollar businesses. The key is that each time an idea is killed, Astro rewards the team, literally, with cash bonuses. Their failure is celebrated and they become a hero.

This should be reproduced in the classroom: kids should try to be critical of their best ideas (learn critical thinking), then they should be celebrated for ‘successfully failing,’ perhaps with cake, balloons, confetti, and lots of Silly String.

Join Me & Get Involved!
Abundance Digital Online Community: I have created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance Digital. This is my ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs – those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432671 Stuff 3.0: The Era of Programmable ...

It’s the end of a long day in your apartment in the early 2040s. You decide your work is done for the day, stand up from your desk, and yawn. “Time for a film!” you say. The house responds to your cues. The desk splits into hundreds of tiny pieces, which flow behind you and take on shape again as a couch. The computer screen you were working on flows up the wall and expands into a flat projection screen. You relax into the couch and, after a few seconds, a remote control surfaces from one of its arms.

In a few seconds flat, you’ve gone from a neatly-equipped office to a home cinema…all within the same four walls. Who needs more than one room?

This is the dream of those who work on “programmable matter.”

In his recent book about AI, Max Tegmark makes a distinction between three different levels of computational sophistication for organisms. Life 1.0 is single-celled organisms like bacteria; here, hardware is indistinguishable from software. The behavior of the bacteria is encoded into its DNA; it cannot learn new things.

Life 2.0 is where humans live on the spectrum. We are more or less stuck with our hardware, but we can change our software by choosing to learn different things, say, Spanish instead of Italian. Much like managing space on your smartphone, your brain’s hardware will allow you to download only a certain number of packages, but, at least theoretically, you can learn new behaviors without changing your underlying genetic code.

Life 3.0 marks a step-change from this: creatures that can change both their hardware and software in something like a feedback loop. This is what Tegmark views as a true artificial intelligence—one that can learn to change its own base code, leading to an explosion in intelligence. Perhaps, with CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, we could be using our “software” to doctor our “hardware” before too long.

Programmable matter extends this analogy to the things in our world: what if your sofa could “learn” how to become a writing desk? What if, instead of a Swiss Army knife with dozens of tool attachments, you just had a single tool that “knew” how to become any other tool you could require, on command? In the crowded cities of the future, could houses be replaced by single, OmniRoom apartments? It would save space, and perhaps resources too.

Such are the dreams, anyway.

But when engineering and manufacturing individual gadgets is such a complex process, you can imagine that making stuff that can turn into many different items can be extremely complicated. Professor Skylar Tibbits at MIT referred to it as 4D printing in a TED Talk, and the website for his research group, the Self-Assembly Lab, excitedly claims, “We have also identified the key ingredients for self-assembly as a simple set of responsive building blocks, energy and interactions that can be designed within nearly every material and machining process available. Self-assembly promises to enable breakthroughs across many disciplines, from biology to material science, software, robotics, manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, construction, the arts, and even space exploration.”

Naturally, their projects are still in the early stages, but the Self-Assembly Lab and others are genuinely exploring just the kind of science fiction applications we mooted.

For example, there’s the cell-phone self-assembly project, which brings to mind eerie, 24/7 factories where mobile phones assemble themselves from 3D printed kits without human or robotic intervention. Okay, so the phones they’re making are hardly going to fly off the shelves as fashion items, but if all you want is something that works, it could cut manufacturing costs substantially and automate even more of the process.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in making programmable matter a reality is choosing the right fundamental building blocks. There’s a very important balance to strike. To create fine details, you need to have things that aren’t too big, so as to keep your rearranged matter from being too lumpy. This might make the building blocks useless for certain applications—for example, if you wanted to make tools for fine manipulation. With big pieces, it might be difficult to simulate a range of textures. On the other hand, if the pieces are too small, different problems can arise.

Imagine a setup where each piece is a small robot. You have to contain the robot’s power source and its brain, or at least some kind of signal-generator and signal-processor, all in the same compact unit. Perhaps you can imagine that one might be able to simulate a range of textures and strengths by changing the strength of the “bond” between individual units—your desk might need to be a little bit more firm than your bed, which might be nicer with a little more give.

Early steps toward creating this kind of matter have been taken by those who are developing modular robots. There are plenty of different groups working on this, including MIT, Lausanne, and the University of Brussels.

In the latter configuration, one individual robot acts as a centralized decision-maker, referred to as the brain unit, but additional robots can autonomously join the brain unit as and when needed to change the shape and structure of the overall system. Although the system is only ten units at present, it’s a proof-of-concept that control can be orchestrated over a modular system of robots; perhaps in the future, smaller versions of the same thing could be the components of Stuff 3.0.

You can imagine that with machine learning algorithms, such swarms of robots might be able to negotiate obstacles and respond to a changing environment more easily than an individual robot (those of you with techno-fear may read “respond to a changing environment” and imagine a robot seamlessly rearranging itself to allow a bullet to pass straight through without harm).

Speaking of robotics, the form of an ideal robot has been a subject of much debate. In fact, one of the major recent robotics competitions—DARPA’s Robotics Challenge—was won by a robot that could adapt, beating Boston Dynamics’ infamous ATLAS humanoid with the simple addition of a wheel that allowed it to drive as well as walk.

Rather than building robots into a humanoid shape (only sometimes useful), allowing them to evolve and discover the ideal form for performing whatever you’ve tasked them to do could prove far more useful. This is particularly true in disaster response, where expensive robots can still be more valuable than humans, but conditions can be very unpredictable and adaptability is key.

Further afield, many futurists imagine “foglets” as the tiny nanobots that will be capable of constructing anything from raw materials, somewhat like the “Santa Claus machine.” But you don’t necessarily need anything quite so indistinguishable from magic to be useful. Programmable matter that can respond and adapt to its surroundings could be used in all kinds of industrial applications. How about a pipe that can strengthen or weaken at will, or divert its direction on command?

We’re some way off from being able to order our beds to turn into bicycles. As with many tech ideas, it may turn out that the traditional low-tech solution is far more practical and cost-effective, even as we can imagine alternatives. But as the march to put a chip in every conceivable object goes on, it seems certain that inanimate objects are about to get a lot more animated.

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#432572 Robots Can Swim, Fetch, Lift, and Dance. ...

Robotics has come a long way in the past few years. Robots can now fetch items from specific spots in massive warehouses, swim through the ocean to study marine life, and lift 200 times their own weight. They can even perform synchronized dance routines.

But the really big question is—can robots put together an Ikea chair?

A team of engineers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore decided to find out, detailing their work in a paper published last week in the journal Science Robotics. The team took industrial robot arms and equipped them with parallel grippers, force-detecting sensors, and 3D cameras, and wrote software enabling the souped-up bots to tackle chair assembly. The robots’ starting point was a set of chair parts randomly scattered within reach.

As impressive as the above-mentioned robotic capabilities are, it’s worth noting that they’re mostly limited to a single skill. Putting together furniture, on the other hand, requires using and precisely coordinating multiple skills, including force control, visual localization, hand-eye coordination, and the patience to read each step of the manual without rushing through it and messing everything up.

Indeed, Ikea furniture, while meant to be simple and user-friendly, has left even the best of us scratching our heads and holding a spare oddly-shaped piece of wood as we stare at the desk or bed frame we just put together—or, for the less even-tempered among us, throwing said piece of wood across the room.

It’s a good thing robots don’t have tempers, because it took a few tries for the bots to get the chair assembly right.

Practice makes perfect, though (or in this case, rewriting code makes perfect), and these bots didn’t give up so easily. They had to hone three different skills: identifying which part was which among the scattered, differently-shaped pieces of wood, coordinating their movements to put those pieces in the right place, and knowing how much force to use in various steps of the process (i.e., more force is needed to connect two pieces than to pick up one piece).

A few tries later, the bots were able to assemble the chair from start to finish in about nine minutes.

On the whole, nicely done. But before we applaud the robots’ success too loudly, it’s important to note that they didn’t autonomously assemble the chair. Rather, each step of the process was planned and coded by engineers, down to the millimeter.

However, the team believes this closely-guided chair assembly was just a first step, and they see a not-so-distant future where combining artificial intelligence with advanced robotic capabilities could produce smart bots that would learn to assemble furniture and do other complex tasks on their own.

Future applications mentioned in the paper include electronics and aircraft manufacturing, logistics, and other high-mix, low-volume sectors.

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#431928 How Fast Is AI Progressing? Stanford’s ...

When? This is probably the question that futurists, AI experts, and even people with a keen interest in technology dread the most. It has proved famously difficult to predict when new developments in AI will take place. The scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence in 1956 thought that perhaps two months would be enough to make “significant advances” in a whole range of complex problems, including computers that can understand language, improve themselves, and even understand abstract concepts.
Sixty years later, and these problems are not yet solved. The AI Index, from Stanford, is an attempt to measure how much progress has been made in artificial intelligence.
The index adopts a unique approach, and tries to aggregate data across many regimes. It contains Volume of Activity metrics, which measure things like venture capital investment, attendance at academic conferences, published papers, and so on. The results are what you might expect: tenfold increases in academic activity since 1996, an explosive growth in startups focused around AI, and corresponding venture capital investment. The issue with this metric is that it measures AI hype as much as AI progress. The two might be correlated, but then again, they may not.
The index also scrapes data from the popular coding website Github, which hosts more source code than anyone in the world. They can track the amount of AI-related software people are creating, as well as the interest levels in popular machine learning packages like Tensorflow and Keras. The index also keeps track of the sentiment of news articles that mention AI: surprisingly, given concerns about the apocalypse and an employment crisis, those considered “positive” outweigh the “negative” by three to one.
But again, this could all just be a measure of AI enthusiasm in general.
No one would dispute the fact that we’re in an age of considerable AI hype, but the progress of AI is littered by booms and busts in hype, growth spurts that alternate with AI winters. So the AI Index attempts to track the progress of algorithms against a series of tasks. How well does computer vision perform at the Large Scale Visual Recognition challenge? (Superhuman at annotating images since 2015, but they still can’t answer questions about images very well, combining natural language processing and image recognition). Speech recognition on phone calls is almost at parity.
In other narrow fields, AIs are still catching up to humans. Translation might be good enough that you can usually get the gist of what’s being said, but still scores poorly on the BLEU metric for translation accuracy. The AI index even keeps track of how well the programs can do on the SAT test, so if you took it, you can compare your score to an AI’s.
Measuring the performance of state-of-the-art AI systems on narrow tasks is useful and fairly easy to do. You can define a metric that’s simple to calculate, or devise a competition with a scoring system, and compare new software with old in a standardized way. Academics can always debate about the best method of assessing translation or natural language understanding. The Loebner prize, a simplified question-and-answer Turing Test, recently adopted Winograd Schema type questions, which rely on contextual understanding. AI has more difficulty with these.
Where the assessment really becomes difficult, though, is in trying to map these narrow-task performances onto general intelligence. This is hard because of a lack of understanding of our own intelligence. Computers are superhuman at chess, and now even a more complex game like Go. The braver predictors who came up with timelines thought AlphaGo’s success was faster than expected, but does this necessarily mean we’re closer to general intelligence than they thought?
Here is where it’s harder to track progress.
We can note the specialized performance of algorithms on tasks previously reserved for humans—for example, the index cites a Nature paper that shows AI can now predict skin cancer with more accuracy than dermatologists. We could even try to track one specific approach to general AI; for example, how many regions of the brain have been successfully simulated by a computer? Alternatively, we could simply keep track of the number of professions and professional tasks that can now be performed to an acceptable standard by AI.

“We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go.”

Progress in AI over the next few years is far more likely to resemble a gradual rising tide—as more and more tasks can be turned into algorithms and accomplished by software—rather than the tsunami of a sudden intelligence explosion or general intelligence breakthrough. Perhaps measuring the ability of an AI system to learn and adapt to the work routines of humans in office-based tasks could be possible.
The AI index doesn’t attempt to offer a timeline for general intelligence, as this is still too nebulous and confused a concept.
Michael Woodridge, head of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, notes, “The main reason general AI is not captured in the report is that neither I nor anyone else would know how to measure progress.” He is concerned about another AI winter, and overhyped “charlatans and snake-oil salesmen” exaggerating the progress that has been made.
A key concern that all the experts bring up is the ethics of artificial intelligence.
Of course, you don’t need general intelligence to have an impact on society; algorithms are already transforming our lives and the world around us. After all, why are Amazon, Google, and Facebook worth any money? The experts agree on the need for an index to measure the benefits of AI, the interactions between humans and AIs, and our ability to program values, ethics, and oversight into these systems.
Barbra Grosz of Harvard champions this view, saying, “It is important to take on the challenge of identifying success measures for AI systems by their impact on people’s lives.”
For those concerned about the AI employment apocalypse, tracking the use of AI in the fields considered most vulnerable (say, self-driving cars replacing taxi drivers) would be a good idea. Society’s flexibility for adapting to AI trends should be measured, too; are we providing people with enough educational opportunities to retrain? How about teaching them to work alongside the algorithms, treating them as tools rather than replacements? The experts also note that the data suffers from being US-centric.
We are running a race, but we don’t know how to get to the endpoint, or how far we have to go. We are judging by the scenery, and how far we’ve run already. For this reason, measuring progress is a daunting task that starts with defining progress. But the AI index, as an annual collection of relevant information, is a good start.
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#431899 Darker Still: Black Mirror’s New ...

The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Emerging Neurotechnology
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
Ethical Questions
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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