Back to the Future III: Does the Future Belong to Smart Machines?

In this series of posts, I have been exploring how the future figures into vocational discernment. So far, my explorations have been more philosophical in nature as I have pondered the “prolepsis of vocation” and the importance of Aristotle’s notion of “Becoming.” In this post, I briefly consider how technology will increasingly affect such ponderings.

According to a growing number of analysts, we are on the verge of a technological tsunami that will change the world in ways comparable to what happened during the Industrial Revolution. As late as 1850, more than 90 percent of the humans on earth were still rural peasant farmers, but within a few turbulent decades those realities were overturned. Technological developments such as machine tools, the steam engine, railroads, and the telegraph (and the factories, sociopolitical systems, and capitalist financiers who enabled it all) thrust our traditional agricultural world toward industrial urbanized modernity.

Now more than half of the planet’s population lives in cities and everyone experiences global conditions that would have been unimaginable in 1850. In effect, the Industrial Revolution mobilized a blend of modern forces that changed the world: It changed where we live, what we do, how we interact with each other, how we think and relate to the cosmos, how we plan, dream, and educate our young. We can debate whether to interpret the revolution more in terms of progress or alienation, but it is impossible to deny its significance. [For more on the global implications of some of these developments, see Bren Tooley’s essay, “Vocation in A Global Frame.” – ed.]

And if the analysts are correct, a new and even more dramatic revolution is about to crest.

Reports out of Oxford University and the Bank of England project that, in the next few decades, nearly 50 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by “smart machines” displacing up to 80 million American workers. They also assert that the impact will be felt across a wide spectrum of professions especially as smart machines are increasingly able to perform non-routine cognitive tasks. Books like Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply (Yale, 2015) and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2016) analyze the employment threats from different angles, and Yuval Noah Harari’s provocative book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper, 2018) explores the broader philosophical and historical implications. (Harari’s thesis could be a topic for future post).

In terms of employment, this Automation Revolution is already creating new opportunities and jobs as the Industrial Revolution did previously. Some optimists think that the emerging transformations will produce positive results that outpace the challenges so that we will actually witness a huge leap forward in human progress and global improvement. They consider the fearful alarms to be Luddite hysteria stirred up by late-modern Chicken Littles.

But a growing consensus is not so optimistic. At the very least, despite remarkable advancements during the last few centuries, we must appreciate the global disruptions and chaos generated by the Industrial Revolution. It seems likely that we, our children, and grandchildren will soon have to navigate disruptions on an even bigger scale. In other words, the mounting Automation Revolution and all the technological, sociopolitical, and economic restructuring that it is already generating will affect everyone.

We will have to cultivate new virtues.

In Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig assert that the emerging world requires us to transition from the “Old Smart” to the “New Smart.” The Old Smart is the industrial era’s emphasis on quantitative skills which smart machines increasingly perform in superior ways. The New Smart emphasizes qualitative capacities such as emotional engagement, critical and innovative thinking, intellectual and artistic creativity, self-awareness and introspection, compassion and dialogical collaboration. The New Smart is less about information access and more about processing and prioritizing the deluge of information we now experience. Hess and Ludwig broadly characterize these new capacities with the notion of “humility” which they correlate with lifelong learning, open-mindedness, and adaptive agility.

All said, it seems that the best way to prepare for the approaching tsunami is to nurture the most human of capacities especially among the rising generations. As such, NetVUE’s emphasis on vocation in undergraduate education as organic, realistic, embodied, narratively-based, communally-oriented processes is not just thought-provoking, it is critical for the future.

John D. Barton is Director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University where he also serves on the faculties of Seaver College’s Religion and Philosophy Division and the GSEP’s graduate program in Social Entrepreneurship and Change. His areas of interest and research include African philosophy, ethics and philanthropy, and inter-religious dialogue.

Vocation in a Global Frame: Four Considerations

Our students will likely live and work in a world even more interconnected and interdependent than we do now. The complex issues that face us spill across national borders, oceans and continents, involve communities with varying histories, cultures, beliefs, languages, political structures and forms of creative expression. These complex global issues and this interconnectedness shape the work-world our students enter. Students seek to discern vocation, not just once, but again and yet again, within this context.

How does globalization impact vocation?

We deepen and enrich our students’ understanding of vocational discernment, and we better understand it ourselves, when we situate the practice of reflection, anticipation and choice of life path within this global frame, when we consider how best to mentor students who are not privileged in their citizenship, circumstances and freedom or range of choice

Here are four components of the intersection of vocational discernment and globalization that seem pressing to me. These are not the only components, and readers are likely to identify additional significant, complex global issues affecting the work world our students enter. We live in a dynamic, constantly changing, highly interdependent world: by calling out these four major intersections of vocational discernment and globalization my hope is to initiate an open-ended conversation, to encourage reflection and dialogue. Continue reading

Vocation & Vacation: Challenging the “Culture of Competitive Martyrdom”

How often have you heard this joke? “Question: What are the three best reasons to become a professor? Answer: June, July, and August.”

Anyone inside the profession, however, experiences a very different world and many academics find themselves in a paradoxical situation inherent in the very nature of their work. From the outside, viewed by, say truck drivers or dentists or factory workers, their jobs look embarrassingly easy. Just 4-12 hours/week of actual time in class, no requirement beyond a few office hours to “clock-in” to a particular place, no direct oversight of the classroom (“my class is my castle”), and unheard-of-in-other-fields job security (believe me, they have heard of tenure and don’t realize how tenuous it is). Oh yes, and three months of vacation. Every year. Continue reading

Connecting the Dots: What we can learn from Steve Jobs, college drop-out

In his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs reflected upon his life: his birth and adoption, his early firing from Apple and marriage and then his scare with death after being diagnosed with cancer.  The first part of the speech was dedicated to “connecting the dots” and to his early life and college experience. Like Jobs, our most successful students are able to “connect the dots” and take important risks. Continue reading

A heresy worth considering…

Image result for geek heresy images
Geek Heresy

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kentaro Toyama back in February 2018 when he visited our campus for an engaging seminar on the role of technology in addressing social problems. Dr. Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan, and his 2015 book, Geek Heresy, articulates what I consider “hard won” insight into the role of technology in society and, more specifically, how technology impacts social change.

Toyama began his career as a computer scientist working for Microsoft in their research division.  If you have ever enjoyed the Kinect accessory in Microsoft’s XBox—the stereo imaging system that converts a player’s motion into real-time video game inputs—you are at least tangentially familiar with some of Toyama’s early research that led to the development of Kinect.  Ultimately, though, Toyama found this work unfulfilling and a far cry from the idealism of his youth that had drawn him to the sciences in the first place.  His original goal was to help solve the energy crisis. Continue reading