The Human-Technology Frontier – Mapping the Terrain

Dennis Shirley is Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College in the United States. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Educational Change, an indispensable resource for change leaders.

This morning I woke up bright and early to teach my online class called “Global Perspectives in Education,” which is based at Boston College in the U.S. Its students include Kiara, whose great passion is science education in museums and schools here in Boston; Ben, a professional hockey player now living in Mannheim, Germany, who wants to transition into secondary school teaching; Zainabu, a philanthropist from a remote rural village in Kenya who is pumping all of her life’s savings into a school that she started and funds from her own resources; and Jen, from the U.S. but now living in South Korea, who has just begun teaching English as a second language at the upper elementary level.

What a lively, engaging class it was! The students were well prepared and eager to learn. We jumped right into this week’s readings. The time flew by as students joined in with animated observations and questions about the differences and pleasures involved in teaching in all of our different settings. 

How fortunate I am, I thought, to be able to work with such inspiring educators. Everyone was keen to make a difference and to uplift the human condition, each in her or his own way.

How grateful I am, I further reflected, to live in an age in which technological advances have been so profound that our communication platform performed flawlessly, even reaching Zainabu’s isolated settlement with only the slightest hint of a snag.

That’s technology at its best: bringing diverse peoples together, facilitating learning about questions of meaning and purpose, and enabling a small mini-United Nations of educators to problem-solve some of the toughest problems facing our schools with humor and zest. What could be better?

But what about the obverse: technology at its worst?

It’s hard to know where to begin. Is it the erosion of personal privacy? Or the speed with which rumors spread and lives are destroyed on social media? Or the spooky stories that circulate in the news from time to time about those lost souls who divorce their real-life spouses to marry an avatar they met on line – and evidently couldn’t be happier?

Has our brave new world of “post-human” encounters become more bizarre than you can stand?

If so, you’d best brace yourself. Our “age of techne” soon will be eliminating millions of jobs, economists agree. Who needs a hotel concierge when you have Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant to answer your questions and make your restaurant bookings? Who needs a real-life waiter when you can place your order with an iPad and have it delivered by a drone? Who needs a fallible human taxi driver when you can get to your destination with greater safety, and possibly less irritating banter, thanks to the miracle of self-driving vehicles?

All of which means that it is high time to gird up our collective loins. We have some steep climbing ahead. We need to provide some kind of a safety net for the millions of workers who are going to lose their jobs – and it better be a strong one. A guaranteed income is part of the answer, but won’t address the human need for social connections and the fulfillment that comes from making a real contribution that decent work provides. Agile workforce retraining is part of the answer too, although it’s hard to imagine how this could be done on a scale that will address the magnitude of forthcoming disruptions.

How, you might ask, are we going to navigate the enormous disruptions caused by artificial intelligence that are coming our way?

These are questions driving new research that I will be conducting in Germany starting in April under the auspices of the Richard von Weizsäcker Fellowship of the Robert Bosch Academy, a Berlin based institution of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. I will be interviewing educators, digital entrepreneurs, policy makers, community activists, and religious leaders to solicit their reflections, and then sort through the data to elicit key insights that can inform public opinion on these urgent matters.

Simultaneously, my fellow researcher from Boston College and one of the world’s leading psychologists of work, David Blustein, will be living in Paris and carrying out the same research agenda. All of our interview data will then be combined later this year with separate data sets that we are compiling with colleagues from Norway and Singapore to develop comparative analyses about how different countries are anticipating (or ignoring) these forthcoming massive societal transformations.

How should our societies weather these forthcoming technologically driven tsunamis of change?

Can we imagine new ways that digital entrepreneurs, schools, universities, and policy makers can all work together to maximize the blessings of artificial intelligence and to minimize its negative and unintended consequences?

If we leave technological disruption to markets alone to solve, the human costs are likely to be devastating. But do we have enough collective intelligence and willpower to make the most of the time that is given to us to calibrate and manage change so that all of us can flourish in a future of almost unlimited possibilities?

Do you have ideas on these topics or suggestions of people to interview? If so, please write to me directly at dennis.shirley@bc.edu. I also invite you to follow me on twitter @dennisshirley.

Your ideas will be much appreciated!