Owning Your Own Future

One of the last pieces that I read as I was leaving Williamsburg last summer was an column by Tom Friedman that captured many of the the central themes for our course this fall.  The central idea of the article is certainly one that resonates with me: the increase in the power of computer technology generated by robotics, artificial intelligence and “the internet of things” has created a world where every decent job demands more skill AND a stronger commitment to self-directed, lifelong learning.

Friedman quotes the C.E.O of Intel in his belief that his grandchildren won’t drive their own cars. History has shown the danger of putting too much faith in the predictions by the managers of technology companies, but it certainly seems possible that we’ll see fleets of autonomous vehicles in the next couple of decades. Those fleets will create good jobs for some engineers but they’ll also drive massive disruptions for those who drive trucks or cabs, sell lability insurance or own downtown parking lots.

The main enabler for the move to autonomous vehicles is the exponential increase in power and decreasing cost of computer power. The next generation of computer chips will allow car manufacturers to shrink the brain of a self-driving car from “something that fills the whole trunk to a small box under the front seat”. The result, as Friedman notes, is “a world where we can analyze, prophesize and optimize with a precision unknown in human history”

That ability to analyze, predict and optimize will infuse most jobs in the developed world as computer power increases. (We need to constantly remind ourself that if combined computer capability doubles every year, we’re looking at increases of 100 times plus over the next eight years.) When many of us think of the oil industry, we think of roughnecks, roustabouts and riggers on drilling platforms in the Gulf. That’s only part of the story as Friedman reminds us in his description of the the control room of Devon Energy in Oklahoma City–a “half a floor of computer screens displaying the data coming out of every well Devon is drilling around the world…if you’re working on a Devon oil rig today, you’re hold a computer, not just an oily wrench.”

The underlying reality for oil workers is that that they will need be be able to use–the computer and the wrench and they’ll need to manage their learning to keep with the changes in the computing technology. The wrench may not change much, but it’s pretty certain that the computer will be telling workers what to loosen or tighten and when to do it.

Friedman also describes how a College Board study that showed how reshaping some of our most entrenched institutions can foster self-directed, lifelong learning.

“We analyzed 250,000 students from the high school graduating class of 2017 who took the new PSAT and then the new SAT,” College Board president David Coleman told me. “Students who took advantage of their PSAT results to launch **their own free personalized improvement practice** through Khan Academy advanced dramatically: 20 hours of practice was associated with an average 115-point increase from the PSAT to the SAT — double the average gain among students who did not…

Practice advances all students without respect to high school G.P.A., gender, race and ethnicity or parental education. And it’s free. Our aim is to transform the SAT into an invitation for students to own their future.”

As we’ve been moving forward with our course this fall, we’ve been looking at how the lessons of industries as diverse as oil drilling and long-haul trucking can shape our personal and professional approaches to learning. For me, Friedman gets it right when he notes that, “And that means: More is now on you. And that means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill.”