The Parabola of Technology

Today I completed the February USA Computing Olympiad. If you have any coding interest, you should check it out. It has three divisions: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. If you do well enough in Bronze, then you are promoted to Silver for the following competitions, and then similarly to Gold. You have 3 hours to complete 3 problems; the Gold problems require pretty advanced knowledge of algorithms and a quick coding skills. Contests are held monthly.


The Growth

I’ve always thought of human progress as a parabola or exponential curve. That is certainly true for population:
graph of world population
The human race has made so much technological progress recently, especially taking off after the Industrial Revolution. Starting in the 17th century, the intense competition between Western countries (and then all industrialized countries) has advanced knowledge and created an infrastructure in which that knowledge can be used. Every piece of knowledge allows us to learn more, every invention allows us to learn faster. Then, in the 19th century, politics was overturned and industrialization began. Near the turn of the 21st century, technology has taken off. We are looking at an unprecedented age ahead of us. Today, some of the things we can do seem like science fiction. Yet we are still using 19th and 20th century frameworks. This restricts our ability to use the new technologies.

Education and Infrastructure

For instance, our education system is archaic. Now, that statement may seem radical and uninformed to you, but bear with me. The education systems of industrialized countries are designed for industrializing agricultural societies. The majority of people (farmers and factory workers) would only go to school through elementary grade levels; they don’t need much education to work, but they do need to be literate. Accountants and other people who are going to work white-collar jobs would continue on to high school. Judges, lawyers, doctors, and professors would go on to a university.

Now, there has been educational inflation. College degrees have gone from rare to necessary. If you want a job which pays even moderately, you need a degree. And they are becoming less valuable even now. With the Computational Revolution, we no longer need a large amount of factory workers or farmers. Most of all, we need people to produce content; we need people with creativity and ideas. Yet the school system still focuses on a core of math and science. It progressively excises creativity and focuses on particular learning conduits. For years, schools have been preparing people for a past that is obsolete in this future. This fundamental failure of the educational system is partially responsible for the huge system failure we have seen over the past few years and will see in the coming years. Even though people have realized that the school system is inadequate, our current social infrastructure lacks the capability to facilitate such a major change.
(Inspired by this TED talk)

Restructuring

Why are we still burning fossil fuels? Why are we still digging up metals from the Earth when we could be sustainably mining them from asteroids? The answer lies in our industrial infrastructure. As much as I hate to say it, the capitalist structure we use right now may not be sufficient in the coming age. Certain technological switches, such as those regarding energy and raw material acquisition, may take time and money to complete which makes them seem immediately unattractive. However, their eventual gain over current methods in regards to sustainability makes them desirable in the long run. It seems that the only way to make the switch is to wait for cheaper technology or to rely on buying power independent of market forces, like a government. Unfortunately, our government is doing the wrong job. It isn’t really doing a bad job, just the wrong one. 19th century political changes have established government obligations those of welfare and public works. Bank regulation is necessary as well. Ensuring a certain level of public education must be necessary. But is the government’s bureaucratic grip slowly suffocating the education system? Probably. The government just isn’t built to deal with things like the Internet, which has decreased communication times so much that ideas are being synthesized faster than ever. The government can’t respond quickly enough to the future. Without even looking at other areas of our infrastructure, we already see problems in the educational set up.

If the government can’t do a good job giving education, should we leave it to private enterprise? Private schools are too expensive for everyone, although they often give quality education. That leaves us with two options: a mass-migration of education onto the Internet, or a fundamental restructuring of the educational system. Let me give you my takes on both of these options.

Online Education

Education on the Internet has seen a small trial with things like the Stanford AI Class, which is exclusively online and open to everyone. The interesting about that and their upcoming follow-up classes is that it took place in a set time, with homeworks and tests. In terms of static lectures, which teach non-interactively, you can look at MIT OCW (open course ware) and Khan Academy. Then of course there are classes which you can pay for (usually a couple hundred), in which you are with a class of other people online, and you periodically read notes, have debates, and turn in homework. Overall, I’m not sure how much online education is going to play into education in the future. Will online courses supplement public education? That is certainly an interesting idea. It would allow schools to focus purely on the most fundamental parts of the education, and people who are further interested in a specific subject could learn more about it online, perhaps within a mini-course, and then get a credit for it. That would allow people to make the most of their education and focus only on things that interest them. Similarly, people could build a “mini-degree” that consists of small courses based on an underlying concept, such as studying human-machine interaction or social networking and its effects on the market.

The Guild System

One idea I’ve been kicking around for a while is that of guilds. Instead of educating people around a core of math and science, we could limit and individual’s education to one field, such as biology, physics, computer science, business management, economics, material engineering, electrical engineering, etc. Which guild you belong to would be determined either by birth or at a young age after essential low-level education. Guilds would control all of the experts in the field, and could lend them out to other guilds or to joint-research projects. They would also have access a large of amount of knowledgeable teachers. They could even make teaching mandatory after retirement. Companies could lease teams of experts.

More over, retirement would be pushed back. Currently, an average person spends half of their life producing. That means the other half is spent passively consuming. Roughly speaking, from 0-20 a person is soaking up resources. From 20-60, they are working. From 60-80, they are retired and again consuming. So unless you can produce enough during your working years to sustain your consumption years, you need to either work longer or die sooner. On the same thread, retirees should not receive welfare from the government. If either a company, foundation, or descendant isn’t willing to pay for an old person, they are a needless burden. While harsh, it is the most logical course of action. Even if this was put in place though, people would adjust. New insurance companies would take the place of government welfare agencies.

Anyways, more to come. Food for thought.

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