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Posted: August 09, 2013

The futurist: Preparing our minds for thoughts unthinkable

Our descendants are counting on us

Thomas Frey

There’s a massive battle brewing in academia. No, it’s not just a battle between MOOCs (massive open online courses) and traditional education. What’s at stake is nothing short of the future of humanity.

Next generation academic systems will determine, from here on out, how the human brain gets developed. The stakes have never been higher. Our descendants are counting on us.

So far, our best and brightest have fallen short. We have not been able to cure cancer, prevent natural disasters, or stop corruption, and the challenges ahead will be even greater. As we plan for the future, we need to set our sights on producing a caliber of people who are exponentially better than we are. And we do that by creating innovative new systems to take us there.

It’s ok to mourn the loss of our old academic institutions, but they’ve been holding us back. Traditional education has kept us tethered to our comparatively small potential, minor accomplishments, and tiny victories as we lose sight of what’s truly important in the clouds of minutia and complexity surrounding us today.

As a backward-looking society, we wish to emulate the heroes of the past, using their achievements as the symbolic gold standard for us to live up to. However, the standard-bearer for significance in the future will be a thousand fold greater. Our backward-looking obsession with problems will all but disappear with forward-looking accomplishments in the future.

With this futuristic rant I‘m hoping to set the stage for what I believe to be humankind’s most important opportunity, the opportunity to build a better grade of human. Let’s begin by dipping our toes into the waters of this enormously important topic. 

Step One: The Heretic Test

Let’s begin with a short test to gauge your thinking.

  1. Were people in the past better off than people will be in the future?
  2. Should we simply cure diseases or should we eliminate illness and death altogether?
  3. Should we be content building fuel-efficient cars and high-speed railways or should we learn to travel at the speed of light?
  4. Should we focus on building better houses to protect us from hurricanes or should we learn to control gravity and eliminate the threat of natural disasters entirely?
  5. Are we living on an over populated planet or in an under populated universe?
  6. Should we build more schools to improve education or should we improve learning speeds by a factor of ten?

This test is intended to show how conditioned we’ve become to taking baby steps. Our accomplishments all need to fall within an acceptable window of change or we will be labeled a heretic, a troublemaker, or worst of all, someone who simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

The 10X Speed-Learning Scenario

Consider the following scenario In 2020: A system is invented to amp up learning speeds by a factor of 10. Any person who spends just one hour a day with this learning system can learn the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in less than two years.

Starting at age 10, committing one hour a day to learning, this individual will earn the equivalent of 44 bachelor’s degrees by the time they turn 80. 

In the U.S., the average tuition cost of a bachelor’s degree at a public four-year college is $102,352. Multiplied by 44 degrees at today’s rate, the cost would be over $45 million.

However, in this scenario, the cost of learning is reduced to $10 per one-hour course, or $3,650 per year. Over the course of a lifetime, total learning costs would be $255,500.

Learning at this speed, the person would consume the equivalent of 81 three-credit courses each year, or 5,677 three-credit courses over their lifetime.

MIT, as example, offers roughly 2,000 different courses. This person would be consuming close to three times as many courses as MIT currently offers.

If you think this scenario is out of line, consider how virtually every industry throughout the world is continually being forced to do more with less. A 10X improvement in computer speeds, agriculture efficiencies, or steel production happens every few years.

For those who think it’s not possible to achieve this kind of efficiency in education, the answer lies in devising new systems, ones without the current self-imposed limits.

The Grand Vision Part One – Participative Wealth Strategy

Creating and distributing online courses is not easy. Course creation needs to recognize the creative genius behind the process and somehow remunerate those who make it possible.

A few years ago I wrote about the concept of “fractal transactions” where financial transactions are automatically subdivided to automatically pay for a variety of contributors to a particular product or service. The advantage of this arrangement is that it eliminates all money going to one person or company, who then has to pay lower level helpers in a timely manner. 

When used to pay for courseware, the revenue stream generated by each purchase will be divided between the courseware creator, distribution company, online courseware builder, official record archive, and much more. Courseware prices need to be kept low to make courseware accessible to anyone interested in learning.

If we use a $10 purchase price for a course, here is an example of how funds could automatically be distributed to contributing entities:

  • 40 percent – Courseware Creator ($4.00)
  • 25 percent – Promotion and Distribution Company ($2.50)
  • 10 percent – Online Courseware Builder ($1.00)
  • 5 percent – Official Record Archive ($.50)
  • 3 percent – Smart Profiler ($.30)
  • 3 percent – Multidimensional Tagging Engine ($.30)
  • 3 percent – Recommendation Engine ($.30)
  • 3 percent – Learning Methodology ($.30)
  • 5 percent – Financial Transaction Costs ($.50)
  • 3 percent – Future Contributors ($.30)

NOTE: If the $10 purchase price for a one-hour course seems high, keep in mind that accelerated learning processes will make this equivalent to ten hours worth of classes today.

Currently distribution companies like Coursera, EDx and Udacity are in a controlling position. If they choose to implement a participative wealth strategy like this, it can quickly become the de facto standard across the industry.

Admittedly, I’ve greatly oversimplified the situation and overlooked the value of many contributors, but this was intended simply as a starting point. Once a system like this is introduced, even tiny fractions will empower entire industries to do better.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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