Preparing Our Children for the Brave New World

By Alan Tien

December 12, 2017

Yesterday, my teenage son came home from school, visibly distraught. He avoided eye contact, answered questions monosyllabically, slumped through dinner and escaped to his boy-cave. Through careful coaxing from his loving mother did he pull out of his shell, only to deliver the shocker, “I’m so stupid.”

We were dumbfounded. My son is not prone to melodrama or self-defeating talk. In fact, he’s generally very even-keeled and optimistic. So what was up? He had gotten his PSAT test score back, and he had scored lower than two of his (very smart) friends.

After we discovered the source of the anguish, we were able to walk him back from the edge of despair, from the deep dark vision of a failed life, all projected from a single data point. As my wife pointed out, it was a wake-up call to us. We believed we were not one of those Asian tiger parents. My wife was even on the school’s Parent Education committee and helped organize a conference starring Denise Pope with her enigmatically-titled “Challenge
 Success
” program. Their homepage explains:

At Challenge Success, we believe that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners. We provide families and schools with the practical, research-based tools they need to create a more balanced and academically fulfilling life for kids. After all, success is measured over the course of a lifetime, not at the end of a semester.

Well, something was off. Here we professed to not pushing for the straight As and perfect test scores, unlike my mom, who challenged my success of a 97 on a test with, “Where are the other 3 points?” But my son still felt like a failure even though printed out just beneath the absolute score of his PSAT was his national percentile ranking, which was very high.

Literally 4 digits had sent him into an emotional tailspin.

Luckily, we were a good tag-team, my wife providing the emotional comfort blanket, and I presenting the logical argument why the test score ultimately didn’t matter. Yes, we both want him to score well, but we are happy as long as we feel he’s tried his hardest and the effort to get that personal-best score does not ruin his love of learning.

I will skip over the obvious arguments we told him: it’s just the PSAT, taken during his sophomore year, and his percentile ranking was great. Furthermore, he had only compared his score against 2 of the smartest kids in his class.

I will even gloss over the Challenge Success view that we’re all too fixated on the “elite” universities, where the admission process is a crap-shoot (Denise Pope had interviewed the Stanford’s Dean of Admission and asked what percentage of students he would accept if he could take every qualified student. The current rate is under 5%. He said 70%.). Ms. Pope posited that our children would thrive in any of the top 200 accredited colleges in the US, and she pointed out that we wouldn’t be able to name more than 50 colleges off the top of our heads (meaning that there were plenty of colleges we haven’t even heard of that would offer a wonderful education for our children).

As much as I agree with Challenge Success’ position (admittedly, only after much internal debate, and forcing myself to accept their oxymoronic name), I believe there’s a larger issue at play. It’s similar to the arguments that our current school system is out of touch with the realities our children will face when they graduate from college. (This article does a superb job outlining the view that “our K–12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education,” even though the author’s dissent from this opinion seems to be splitting hairs.). Though I agree with this view that our educational process is obsolete and that it should be upgraded, I think it misses the bigger point. It’s not only our pedagogical approach is outdated, but even the subjects taught are questionable. Our world is changing so much, so fast, that traditional AP subjects, such as calculus or chemistry, or even “newer” subjects, such as computer science, are not going to be very helpful in the coming age of Artificial Intelligence and Biogenetics.

A friend of mine just told me a horrifying story where he heard his son ask Siri what “12 + 7” was. This is funny in a scary way, but I’m sure our teachers were equally horrified when we used our calculators to do simple arithmetic. The advances of computers, and now AI, are so astounding that it’s conceivable that in our lifetime, we will be asking ourselves questions and not be aware of whether the answer came from our own organic tissue brain or from the brain-implant (we already think we’re smarter than we actually are with Google). The boy using Siri has just been outed only because he was caught during this transition period before the AI is embedded in our heads, and then nobody will hear us asking the dumb questions.

Today, AI is very skill-specific (e.g., play chess or Go), but the machine-learning algorithms are improving on a daily basis, and machines learn much, much faster than humans do, without needing time to rest and play. Already, AI is as good, if not better, than world-class dermatologists and radiologists in “deciphering diagnoses from images.” In other words, the hallowed profession of doctors — the #1 career of choice for Chinese parents — is being threatened. #2 — lawyers – is not much further behind. #3 — engineer — is safe, right? Somebody’s got to program those robots, right? Right???

I remember being in the top 10% of Andersen Consulting’s (“AC” for short, now called Accenture) entering class of programmers. I was good at Stanford, getting As in my CS classes, but I wasn’t great. AC had just hired some CS PhDs from Romania (or some other Eastern European country, doesn’t matter which) for the same salary as us US-undergrads. These guys, barely speaking any English and jet-lagged like hell, programmed circles around us. They were at least 10x faster than I was, and I was already 10x faster than the English-Lit football player from Notre Dame who sat next to me. The point is that the skill-level in programming is not linear: a great programmer being twice as good as a good programmer. No, the proficiency increases exponentially. Thus, I believe that if you’re not in that top 1% of world-class programmers, then don’t bother going into CS. AI will be able to do whatever you can do, a lot better and a lot faster.

However, I do not believe AI will replace all human jobs. As Peter Thiel argues in his awesome startup book Zero to One, AI is best when it’s used with humans.

This article summarizes it well:

However, a new mindset is taking shape — the era of AI-human hybrid intelligence. This combination of a human brain and a computer intelligence is known as a centaur. The centaur model sparked the growth of freestyle chess, a context in which Garry Kasparov concluded that “weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkable, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”

I believe in our lifetime, AI and robots will still need the “human touch,” because much of the work interfaces with humans eventually. So doctors won’t need to diagnose the x-ray image to determine if the cells are cancerous anymore, but they will have to deliver the heart-wrenching news that someone you love has the awful disease and discuss the treatment desired. Maybe the lawyer won’t have to sift through mountains of evidence to find the smoking gun, but clients will still want a human to talk through the ramifications of the case. In other words, the skills required in the future will be less based around IQ and more around EQ. I would argue mastering calculus or organic chem is less important than understanding human behavior (my wife and I really like Enneagram) and our cognitive biases
 (check out Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project).

Perhaps an even bigger, though less reported, mega-trend is the advances in genetic engineering in humans, or biogenetics. Only within the last few years have scientists figured out how to edit our DNA with genome-clipping scissors called CRISPR. Then in July 2017, US scientists were able to edit human DNA in embryos. This is great for snipping out genetic diseases, such as Down Syndrome or Parkinson’s disease, but it can also lead to “designer babies,” where the rich (initially, only the rich will be able to afford these procedures) can customize the genes of the embryo still in the womb.

There are many concerns around genetically engineering humans. CRISPR is a very precise gene-editing tool, but it can sometimes lead to editing errors. So some fear that small mistakes could lead to permanent problems in the human gene pool. There are also ethical concerns: bioethicists fear that gene-editing will lead to a world where parents will be able to customize their own “designer baby,” complete with specific traits.

The most disconcerting word in the above paragraph is “permanent.” The article focuses on the mistakes, but the successfully edited genes are also inheritable. So when the “designer baby” grows up and has children, his or her genes will be passed to his or her baby, and so on down the line. In other words, we’re able to engineer our own species’ mutation, like the warnings of Aldous Huxley’s classic dystopian Brave New World and the superb movie Gattaca. We will then have classes of humans — normal homo sapiens, and a new super-breed of (rich) genetically-modified humans. Sounds like an X-men movie, doesn’t it?

This is a genie-out-of the-bottle invention. It can’t be put back into the bottle. Even if the US restricts genome-editing research, other less-scrupulous countries like China have already started down this path. And these are just the research projects we’re aware of, never mind the secret labs of billionaires who want to edit their own genes.

Like the internet in the early 90s, this is a trend that is so early that we do not really have any idea where it will lead us. Thus, I would suggest that Biogenetics a great field to enter now, instead of joining the overcrowded field of Computer Science, which as I pointed out above, will most likely only be helpful for the best of the best programmers.

For these two megatrends — AI and genetic engineering, there’s another field that will be needed for both — Philosophy. Once almost a requirement for a Greek citizen to be considered a gentleman, philosophy has been relegated to tweeded professors debating trivial points that have nothing to do with our real world. While interesting enough to make science fiction shows about (Westworld’s The Bicameral Mind), philosophy can’t stand up to the demands of our literal, materialistic world. Up until now.

Suddenly, philosophy is critically important again as we delve into the murky area of ethics. As mentioned above, editing human DNA brings up huge ethical concerns. Where do we draw the line on editing the genes of an embryo? Ethics are also critical in the evolving field of AI. For example, what should be done about self-driving cars, where the AI can react thousands of times faster than the human brain? What if to avoid an accident straight ahead, the AI must decide whether to turn left or right? A human being just reacts, but the AI is fast enough to consider the consequences of its decisions. What if left kills an old lady, right impacts a car with a family of four, or just going straight endangers the passenger of the AI’s own car (assuming the AI itself doesn’t have consciousness…yet!)? What’s the correct, ethical decision (my son reminded me this is called the Trolley Problem)? We need to go back to philosophy to understand our cultural values.

And finally, a human trait that AI has not yet mastered — creativity — will have even greater value in our children’s future world. Today, creativity is already revered because of its ability to bring about great business success. Though artists are celebrated, our modern society’s greatest heroes are the business entrepreneurs who bridle the magic of creativity: Steve Jobs with Apple, Elon Musk for Tesla, and Pixar for all their hits such as Toy Story (co-founder Ed Catmull wrote this enlightening book Creativity, Inc.). So as AI starts handling more and more of the mundane jobs of today’s workforce, creativity will change from a “nice to have” to a “must have” just to stay afloat, ahead of the rising tide of AI.

As parents, we all wish the best for our children. We hope they will grow up to be independent, successful citizens of the world. In that quest, we sometimes are misguided by today’s societal pressures, “keeping up with the Jones” in the number of AP classes, extra-curricular activities, test scores, and college admissions. There’s an argument even within today’s world that these well-meaning pursuits are actually damaging in the longer term towards the child’s self-worth, love of learning, and risk-taking abilities. However, I would argue that Challenge Success is still too close to the trees to see the forest. The whole world, never mind the forest, is changing.

The megatrends of AI and Biogenetics, almost on the opposite ends of the spectrum, are rising like tidal waves. In the future of our children, they will crash together and reshape the entire world and society as we know it. To prepare our loved ones for that brave new world, we need to look past today’s successful careers (doctors, lawyers, engineers) and their prerequisites (math, science, computer programming) and envision what will be needed instead. I believe it will be empathy, philosophy, and creativity.


Originally published at blog.itien.com.