In Ten Years, Will We Be Smart Enough for Our Smart World?

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an article reminding Americans how fast change is coming over the next ten years.

The article was written following an interview with the executives at Apple, who whet our appetites for future technology by saying the iPhone may not even be a phone anymore in ten years.

Did you catch that?

Yep. In 2027, you might be walking down the street, assured you will arrive at your destination even though you don’t know where it is. There is a voice nearby giving you turn by turn directions, and in between, it’s prepping you for the meeting you’re about to host, according to the WSJ article. Your portable device automatically talks to you, reminding you of details as if it were a full-time administrative assistant. “Don’t forget to order the dog food at 4:30 pm. Call Jenny. You’re having coffee with Jason who wants to ask you about a job. Dinner arrives at your door at 6:30 pm.”

It’s like the Jetsons, on steroids.

As you enter the coffee shop, screens are everywhere. Some are for entertainment, but most are for nearly everything else: information, updates, locations you may want to explore, meet and greets, you name it. People are swiping those screens to consume what they want. Products are purchased on a screen and produced from a screen, 3D, just like we’ve begun to see already in some parts of the world.

Our devices have morphed into a suite of apps and services, enhanced with artificial intelligence (A.I.) and Augmented Reality (A.R.) which makes every experience, (good or bad), more bearable. Apple calls it a “body area network of services, batteries and sensors.” The iPhone, as we knew it in 2007, was only the beginning.

I just visited my friend, Gary, who lives in Boise, Idaho. He invited me to drive his Tesla, a smart car, that actually drives itself. Sitting behind the wheel has never been so easy. When we arrived at our destination, I asked Gary how to turn it off. He replied, “Oh, it will know you’re finished and stop the engine on its own.” Wow. And, of course, the doors unlocked and opened when we returned to drive home.

Talk about a smart world. Just call me George Jetson.

Are We Smart Enough for This Smart World?

In less than a decade, our cars will be smarter than the Tesla I just drove in Boise. Further, not only will our phones be smart, they will be used to fulfill requests that don’t even resemble a phone’s capabilities today. Our homes will be smart, far beyond the ability to lock themselves, turn on the lights and set the alarm. They will literally communicate with us, while we’re in the house or away. Our clothes will be smart enough to let the washing machine know whether to use cold, warm or hot water when you toss your shirt in. Our bathrooms and bedrooms will be smart enough to know our personal needs and our restaurants will be smart enough to recommend foods we want or need as they read our fingerprints. Beautiful or handsome robots will be smart enough to take your requests and grant you what you wish, be it moral, amoral or immoral. All that matters is that it’s not illegal at the time.

Are we ready for this? Will our graduates be ready to thrive in this world?

As I survey the data we’ve collected on these coming realities, and as I hear from students across the country, I’ve distilled my two chief concerns:

  1. Mental Health
  1. Moral Fluidity

You see, this coming “smart world” presents an overwhelming amount of information and choices, the likes of which our brains were not designed to handle all at once. The angst, depression and anxiety attacks we already see in adolescents is the result of many realities, not the least of which is the constant ping of the phone, thanks to social media. Get ready for more mental health issues on campus and at home. Somehow, I don’t believe the answer is simply to take more meds.

Furthermore, the moral fluidity stems from the fact that our smart world opens up all sorts of options for pleasure and opportunities for exploration, some of which we have no idea how to handle. What do we make of the moral implications of robots that can offer a cup of coffee and a sexual favor at an exclusive café? Or, how about the implications of sending robots into another nation to fight our war? Does that make it easier to declare war since it costs us technology and money more than human life? Is it right to make a moral decision based purely on convenience?

You see, our technology has the potential to carry us further than our character can sustain us. Trouble brews when our integrity doesn’t keep pace with the momentum created by that smart technology. Students can develop “elastic morality.”

My advice? We must continue to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, of course. But on top of that, we must begin to have conversations about the smart future that’s just around the corner and prepare our students for it. We must dialogue about issues like mental health and moral fluidity with our young. Positive change begins with such conversations.

If you haven’t ordered it already, may I encourage you to pick up a copy of my newest release, Marching Off the Map: Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World. In it, Andrew McPeak and I wrestle with how to prepare students for this smart world so they can thrive in it. This is the need of the hour.

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In Ten Years, Will We Be Smart Enough for Our Smart World?