The Inevitable

Technology is an inexorable force for change that is accelerating the evolution of our species, argues Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will Shape our Future. He shares 12 forces that are shaping our immediate and not so immediate future, all fascinating, but a chapter titled ‘Screening’ really captured my attention.

Historically culture revolved around the oral tradition of lecture and storytelling but was disrupted by the mass production and access to books through the invention and spread of the printing press.

In the subsequent years, an author was considered an authority, with the ever present and fixed nature of the written word etched in ink, that could be referenced, referred to and cited with the understanding that what was written was true, verifiable and immovable.

The ubiquity of digital screens and the ability for amateur creators to publish, journal, share and comment has created an interesting period of tension with the segmentation of people into two categories that Kelly refers to as the People of the Book and the People of the Screen. People of the screen prefer the dynamic flux of pixels – the fluidity and flow of ideas, opinions, tweets, half-baked thoughts, memes and social commentary. Truth is no longer what is written, but rather the assembly of multiple streams of information interpreted, evaluated and re-interpreted through an individual and social construction and reconstruction of truth. Authors and authority are not given the same weight as an individual seeks to discover for themselves the validity of that which appears through their state of conscious and unconscious acquisition of knowledge and evaluation of arguments, counter arguments and opposing viewpoints.

Truth with a capital T, becomes truths, plural. Is this what we might refer to as a post-truth society? Maybe. Maybe not.

The call for children in schools to be able to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is the necessity for them to develop finely tuned bullshit detectors as they navigate a multiplicity of streams of information from different sources. I sit right in the middle of this Book V Screen tension. Having grown up with the first personal computers and gaming consoles (hello Atari 2600), I find that I read a ridiculous amount on a screen. I also read many books each year. I am currently studying a PhD which requires me to search online databases of relevant literature. I find that if I want to read something deeply however, I prefer a hardcopy. A print out of a research paper allows me to physically highlight relevant sections. Indeed, the tactile sensation of a hardcover volume somehow facilitates a deeper contemplative state. Why is this? I’m not sure but my guess is that a hardcopy text creates a more relaxed and passive conscious state as opposed to the activeness, interconnectedness and hyperlinked online environment.

Herbert Simon is quoted as saying that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” and this creates for me an interesting conundrum. What do I focus my attention on? Is it ok to wander down a rabbit hole of ideas, new media and tangentially related topics? Do I read a paperback non-fiction book or do I read it on a kindle and allow the sharing of my highlighted passages and annotations with an almost unlimited audience? Is reading a solitary or a social pursuit? Can I benefit from the collective commentary of and interaction with potentially thousands of other readers or am I ok with individual contemplation and reflection?

Kelly suggests that much like Wikipedia, the future is a state where all the books in the world combined with all the digital text on the web will become a single liquid fabric or interconnected world of ideas. This is both exciting and terrifying. A challenge to the identities of the People of the Book for sure. Identity, capital I, is a focus of my research as I seek to uncover the factors that inhibit and enhance an individuals ability to engage in identity formation and reformation.

In a recent Virtual Reality (VR) experiment at Stanford University, participant’s arms became their legs and their legs became their arms. That is to kick in VR, participants had to punch with their arms in ‘real life.’ This experiment resulted in what I think is a mind blowing outcome – it took a person on average four minutes to completely rewire the feet/arm circuitry in their brains to make this feel natural and allow action without conscious decision-making.

Our identities are far more fluid than we think and despite the tension that always exists between the new and the old, perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “first we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

How many languages do you speak?

The exponential march of technology will see real time language translation permeate our lives within the very near future. Eliminating the concept of a language barrier, and with the proliferation of mobile technology seeing developing countries skip entire generations of infrastructure development, this technology has the potential to accelerate globalization at a rate far faster than we can imagine. Alec Ross in The Industries of the Future shares,

The most interesting innovations in machine translation will come with the human interface. In ten years, a small earpiece will whisper what is being said to you in your native language near simultaneously to the foreign language being spoken. The lag time will be the speed of sound. Undetectable. The voice in your ear will not be a computer voice like Siri. Because of advances in bioacoustic engineering measuring the frequency, wavelength, sound intensity, and other properties of the voice, the software in the cloud connected to the earpeice in your ear will recreate the voice of the speaker, but speaking your native language.

We already have Skype Translator, an online real time translation service for Skype. Currently it supports seven languages for voice calls and more than fifty languages for instant messaging. It is developing in sophistication almost daily as it uses machine learning algorithms which increase its efficacy the more it gets used. Pilot is one of the first attempts at developing a smart earpeice language translator that sees the convergence of wearable technology and machine translation. It won’t be the last. The small team developing this product has just been successful in its crowd funding campaign raising 3170% of its initial funding goal.

What does all this mean for the future of language learning? Not much at the moment. It will take many years before the technology reaches maturity. In the immediate short term we will see learners and institutions take advantage of the increasing capabilities of machine language translation in current learning contexts. Whether a non native speaker is sitting in a physical classroom or accessing their education virtually, the assistive capabilities of real time language translation will enable a deeper engagement and provide new levels of accessibility for the keen but less proficient non native speaking student.

With international education in Australia being a $20 billion industry, any institutional strategy for developing students’ English language proficiency and capability should consider the implications of the emerging technology of machine translation.

Super-connected world – Marvel or Myth?

The other deep conversation that I had the pleasure of sitting in on yesterday at Creative Innovation was “Super-connected world – Marvel or Myth?” with Ray Kurzweil, Daniel Dennett & Tan Le.

According to Ray Kurzweil, in the 21st Century we won’t experience one hundred years of progress—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). We are fast-approaching a radically different future in which we merge with our machines, overcome our mortality to live indefinitely, and become billions of times more intelligent. Ray spoke about his Law of Accelerating Returns, and having just finished his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, I was fascinated to hear the dialogue between Dennett, who seems to be almost a technological pessimist (philosophy whilst interesting, can sometimes be used as an excuse for procrastination whilst contemplating the intricacies of whatever you have thought about doing…), and Kurzweil, a man who has 19 honorary doctorates and a unwavering belief in his vision of the future.

The dialogue and debate was fascinating. Whether you believe Kurzweil’s prediction that in the year 2029 we will have computers that support human level intelligence, a moment in time he coins the technological singularity – the claims can not be dismissed outright. Tan Le showed that Kurzweil’s predictions are indeed plausible, by talking at length about her company emotiv, a company doing cutting-edge research into brain-machine interfaces. For anyone who thinks that Ray Kurzweil’s predictions are not within the realms of possibility, consider the emotiv EPOC (combined with the SDK) headset, based on the latest developments in neurotechnology, that allows you to control a computer with your thoughts alone – and it costs less than $300! 

If I was to be critical of this deep conversation, it would be only in the fact that the brilliant Tan Le almost got drowned out of the conversation between two men using their intellects in a battle of ego and wit. When Tan did get a chance to speak it was with knowledge and passion. Catch the recording of her TEDGlobal talk in 2010.

When brain-machine interfaces become mainstream, we might ask: What is the difference between a human brain enhanced a million fold by technology opposed to a unenhanced brain? The moral and ethical implication of human-machine hybrids was discussed at length with identity, consciousness and what it means to be a human all brought into question.

Children as Makers

In the MakersCory Doctorow paints a picture of a not too distant future, where a global economic downturn has led to an explosion of tinkering, innovation and creativity. This explosion is coined the ‘New Work’ movement and draws similarities to the dot-com boom of the 90’s. This ‘New Work’ movement empowers the average person and inspires a renaissance of sorts, almost removing the idea or paradigm of the centralized working environment. It creates a new culture, one of joyful discovery and inquisitiveness, of collaboration, and one where innovation is not only valued, but necessary to remain competitive in a fast-changing world.

This culture, dominated by amateur creators, no longer values corporate hierarchies or structures. People evolve with an ever-changing, and increasingly sophisticated technological world and are not tied or shackled to institutions that try to maintain the status quo, and they in turn, create new economic models and ways of doing business. This new movement is fuelled in part by the 3D printer. Wikipedia describes 3D printing,

“3D printing is a form of manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printers offer product developers the ability to print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process.”

Quantum Victoria has a Dimension Elite 3D Printer that will be used for engineering processes such as proof of concept, functional testing, product mockups etc. and whilst the current costs of these devices is prohibitive, already we are seeing low-cost solutions entering the market. These printers are basically used as rapid prototyping devices at present, but not for much longer. Neil Gershenfeld, the Director for the Centre of Bits and Atoms at MIT, has been working on personal fabrication labs or ‘Fablabs’ for a few years now. These machines are still currently in their primitive stage, but Gershenfeld predicts that within 20 years every home will be equipped with a ‘Fablab’.

In 20 years, imagine not going to a jeweller to buy a new watch – but instead designing your own and fabricating it in your own home. Imagine being able to build anything you ever need in your own home, then imagine the effect that this will have on society, economics and industry.

New and emerging technologies like 3D printers are radically altering the landscape in which we live. By harnessing the potential of these technologies we can ensure systemic and fundamental restructuring – but to take full advantage of the opportunities this paradigm shift affords, we need children to have a passion for new ideas and creative tinkering. If innovation is seen as the successful implementation of creative ideas, then play is an integral part to the development of these passions we require our children to have.

Whilst most adults recognize the importance of providing young children the opportunity to play in educational environments, the connection between play and learning is often talked about dismissively, referred to as ‘just play”, and discussed as if in a dichotomy with learning. The ‘back to basics’ movement should be about reconnecting pleasurable emotions with learning and encouraging a playful environment – one that is not clinging to romantic notions of nostalgia but instead suited to the needs to the 21st century. This new approach would enable learners to develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical to success in todays society – in other words it would encourage children to be makers.

The Makers is technically science fiction, but really could be a commentary of society in the early 21st century. It resonates with many of the themes that are current in today’s society such as open source v proprietary, the individual v the corporation, intellectual property and out of date copyright laws and infringement in the age of the remix culture. 

Download your own free copy of Makers by Cory Doctorow here.

Change and a Better Future

As part of the scholarship application process for Creative Innovation 2011, I was asked to respond to the question,  “In this super-connected world, what is your idea for change and a better future?”

This is my response.

Catalyzed by technology and fueled by creativity and innovation, fundamental and exponential change is now a common part of the super-connected world in which we inhabit. In this rapidly changing world in which we live, technology is driving change and is increasingly a means for empowerment, a method of communication and socializing, and a ubiquitous, transparent part of many people’s lives.

A better future can be achieved by harnessing the potential of technology to provide equitable access to quality education thus ensuring systemic and fundamental restructuring and economic prosperity for all. By leveraging open content and the idea of having the entire sum of all human knowledge at your finger tips, barriers of geographic isolation, socio-economic status and disadvantage are removed. Young people now have the ability to learn what they want, when they want and from whom they want and are not constrained by their location or the knowledge and quality of their teacher. Young people now have a voice and can be a contributor to peace, economic and education reform, the improvement of public services and many other aspects of society.

Traditional schools currently face a challenge unprecedented in our history. How do we adequately prepare students for a future that is yet to exist and constantly changing? How do we ensure students enter the workforce with the most important skill of the 21st century – learning how to learn?

To meet these challenges, I have been part of a team establishing a new initiative, Quantum Victoria.

Quantum Victoria is a new centre of excellence and innovation in science and mathematics which is currently being built in Melbourne, Australia. Quantum Victoria aims to re-energize science and mathematics education across Australia by:

  • Increasing students’ interest, participation and engagement in science and mathematics, and encouraging more students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
  • Expanding the knowledge base of teachers and increasing teacher capacity to engage students

Our blend of in-house and online outreach programs will embrace cutting edge, aspirational technologies with a particular focus on games technology, providing virtual reality experiences, augmented reality, CAD, 3D Printing, robotics and mechatronics.

We are currently involved in International consortia that are investigating:

  • New and best practices in online education for STEM students and the professional development of teachers
  • New models of student-driven STEM learning that are engaging, lead to higher retention rates and promote learning how to learn.

With the increasing pervasiveness and ubiquity of technology the physical, social and virtual worlds are colliding, merging and enabling us to form new ideas about teaching and learning. At Quantum Victoria, we believe that all children can excel in STEM disciplines, including computer science, which they will need to work in the multi-disciplinary, high-tech industries of the 21st century.

The obstacles we currently face as we implement our initiative include old mindsets and resistance to change. Quantum Victoria believes that new, innovative forms of teacher professional development are the cornerstone to building teacher capacity in the 21st century. To excite the next generation of STEM students, Quantum Victoria will offer educators a unique opportunity to re-envision their curriculum in ways that are relevant for today’s learner.

Students with STEM skills, combined with innovation and entrepreneurship, will be equipped to find solutions to current and future problems such as clean and renewable energy, climate change, poverty, health, etc. and this will lead to changes that ultimately improve the world.

acer Iconia Tab A501 – Review

The tablet has dimensions of 260x177x13.3mm and weighs in at around 730g, weighing a good 100g more than an iPad.  Whilst 100g doesn’t sound much, using the Iconia Tab for any lengthy period of time results in fatigued forearms – it really is a two-handed device.  (The acer protective case for about $50, that folds into two positions, is a must and gives your forearms a rest.)

The display is a 10.1 inch LCD capacitive touchscreen with 800×1280 pixels – and is actually quite nice to look at. It boasts NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 mobile processor and verison 3.0 (Honeycomb) of Google’s Android platform. At the moment the Iconia Tab A501 can play back video at 720p HD, but with an upgrade coming soon via Honeycomb, will soon play at 1080p. The stereo speakers are surprisingly good, sounding much better than the sound coming from an iPad, and of course the Iconia Tab comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Other features include:

* 32 GB flash memory

* 1 GB RAM

* 5 MP, 2592 x 1944 pixels, autofocus, LED flash rear camera

* 2MP front camera

* microSD card slot catering for up to 32GB of extra storage

* HDMI port allowing 1080p video output 

The user interface of the Iconia Tab is at times a little unresponsive — launching applications can sometimes take a while and the user interface is perhaps not as intuitive as it could be. The touchscreen also appears to be somewhat insensitive. Battery life is about 6 hours with intermittent web surfing, video streaming, game playing etc. Streaming video from Youtube over Wi-Fi was very good and the interface enables you to stream 720p with a simple touch. 

Whilst supporting Flash, the Iconia Tab still has difficulty in loading and playing Flash-based web games…. And whilst on games, the one thing that continues to under-impress me is the quality of tablet games currently on the market. Aside from classics like the very simple and yet at times infuriatingly difficult Angry Birds, the current games on the market lack depth, sophistication and replay ability. The Iconia Tab comes with Let’s Golf, Hero of Sparta and NFS Shift – the later whilst sporting nice looking graphics, basically only uses the gyro functionality of the tab to allow the player to steer – whilst fun for about 5 minutes, that’s all there is to it.

Downloading the DocstoGo app for $15 allows for viewing of Microsoft docs, pdf’s, and gives the ability to create new docs and edit existing ones – it also allows the Iconia tab to read your usb as an external storage device. (I have noticed that some apps on the Android market are device and location specific…) Video playback from usb supports H.264, mp4, oog, wav & wma – but no native avi support is frustrating. 

Starting at around $690 in Australia (JbHiFi), which is only slightly less than the starting price for the equivalent iPad 2 ($800), the Iconia Tab is still not quite there – especially considering the latest report from McAfee; the popular anti-virus maker reported that Android was the most targeted mobile platform for malware during the second quarter of the year.

acer Iconia Tab A501

I am in the process of reviewing the A501 acer Iconia Tab. The tablet features impressive specifications — boasting NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 mobile processor, a 10″ screen, version 3.0 (Honeycomb) of Google’s Android platform and a range of other features including USB input. Other features include:

  • 32 GB flash memory
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 5 MP rear camera
  • 2MP front camera
  • microSD card slot
  • HDMI output

First impressions are that it is heavy (765g according to the packaging), navigation is not as intuitive as iOS, there appears to be a slight delay and some insensitivity built into the touchscreen, and that some apps for the Android platform are device specific…

So, is it going to challenge the iPad – not if first impressions are anything to go by. More details soon.

The Techno-Human Condition

Technologies inhabit two rather independent realities. First there is the reality of the immediate effectiveness of the technology itself as it is used by those trying to accomplish something. This is a level 1 technology (ie. a jet airplane). The other reality is that of systemic complexity – level 2 technology includes subsystems that when acting together create emergent behaviour that is often unpredictable and infinitely more complicated. (ie. the air transportation system)

From The Techno-Human Condition:

At level 2 one gets phenomena such as “lock-in” which occurs when economic, cultural, and coupled technology systems coalesce around a particular way of doing something – as we see in the automobile industry, where hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology is feasible today, but the energy-supply infrastructure necessary to support it is not. The gasoline internal-combustion engine is thus “locked-in” by the economic interests of the suppliers of petroleum fuels, the physical infrastructure of the pipelines and gas stations, the interdependency of gasoline internal-combustion engines and gasoline, and the cultural role of fossil-fuel consuming automobiles.

“Lock-in” of course, does not imply that technological change is impossible – merely that it strongly tends to follow the paths that reflect past system states. This concept of “Lock-in” relates directly to the current state of education reform. 

Education reform is a hot topic precisely because everyone has a vested interest in education and claim varying levels of experience and expertise in either attending or working in the system. What is apparent however is that no other industry ignores it’s research more than education. Building upon the works of progressive educators such as Dewey, Piaget, Papert and Heppell, we know what education should look like – and it looks very different from the rigid, timetabled, standardized approach advocated in most areas today. Whilst there is pockets of reform and innovation happening in education sectors around the world, the education system, as a level 2 technology, is “locked in” by the economic and emotional interests of policy makers and commercial stakeholders. The inertia inherent with system-wide reform efforts and policy changes makes me think that we may be wasting time with the continual dialogue about the “schools we need.” Instead of waiting for policy-makers to make decisions, those involved in education at a local level just need to follow the Channel 4 slogan, “Do it first, make trouble, inspire change.”

The Techno-Human Condition is a challenging look at the implications of the exponential growth and developments in technology and the implications that this has for society. The book explores the possibility of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies such as neuropharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, genetic modifications, prenatal dietary interventions and computer-brain interfaces, to eliminate ageing and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities.                                        

Highly recommended.

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology written by Allan Collins & Richard Halverson, offers some insights from a balanced point of view, is succinct and easy to follow, and is one that I believe all administrators and educators in positions of responsibility should read. It could and should form the basis for discussion about educational change in schools, (in particular, required changes in pedagogy), and would aid in the construction of school vision, strategic and annual implementation plans.

Halverson and Collins call for a rethink about what is important to learn in a world with ubiquitous access. With the explosion of the availability in information and indeed the amount of available information, students now more than ever, need to learn about how to learn, rather than acquiring more information through passive conduits. The rate of information and technological development is increasing exponentially and if you believe Cisco Systems Inc. futurist Dave Evan, in five years we’ll be creating the equivalent of 92 million Libraries of Congress worth of data a year . No one can now know all there is to know – it is an impossible task.

Halverson and Collins share a a series of questions that they argue act as a framework and should encompass the types of thinking and action required for adaptive thinking in an information-rich world.

1)From what viewpoint are we seeing, reading or hearing this?

2)How do we know what we know? What’s the evidence, and how reliable is it?

3)How are things, people or events connected? What is the cause and effect? How do they fit?

4)What if…? Could things be otherwise? What are or were the alternatives?

5)So what? Why does it matter? What does it all mean? Who cares?

I was lucky enough to be able to participate in an interview with the authors of this book on Tuesday, February the 16th at 12pm AEST. The interview was facilitated by Will Richardson and was held using Elluminate with over 100 participants actively engaged in discussion via the backchannel and having the ability to ask the authors questions directly. Listen to the recording here.

With the explosion in information, the proliferation of web technologies and the emergence of new forms of teaching and learning, what role will school play in the future? Historically, school was identified as the place of learning – increasingly this is no longer the case.