Technological Singularity

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Cheating the death of imagination: Teaching the unknowable

The idea of a Technological Singularity has been discussed and debated intensely since the early 1990s. Coined by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, the idea is that as technologies evolve, technologies improve, costs decrease; and, in turn, the process of technological evolution advances and speeds itself up, creating a J-curve of exponential, accelerating change. Eventually, the J-curve hits an inflection point, and change begins to occur at timescales that seem nearly instantaneous. This is the Technological Singularity.

At Education Futures, in our work to help guide governments and organizations, we’ve looked hard at what this means to humans and human systems – in particular with regard to how we will learn and work in the future. In this frame, the Technological Singularity also represents the point at which change occurs so rapidly that the human mind cannot imagine what will happen next. Moreover, technological change facilitates social change (and vice-versa). We need to prepare for rapidly-occurring, intense periods of social, cultural, and economic transformation.

The Technological Singularity represents the limit of human imagination.

It is important to note that the J-curve of accelerating change is graphed independently of scale. There is not a standard measurement of change, and there is no measurement of time. We can look at illustrative examples for correlates, such as the growth of microprocessor computing power under Moore’s Law, but the idea of a Technological Singularity is subjective to the human experience.

Herein lies the rub: We are all very different. We have differing abilities to cope with change, to imagine new futures, to communicate, to solve problems, use resources wisely, and so forth. We cannot expect to experience ‘the’ Technological Singularity together. Rather, we should prepare to experience many individual singularities, as individuals, groups, and as a society. Depending on who we are and the contexts in which we are placed, we will hit the limits of our imagination – our singularities – at different times and under different circumstances. Industries are transforming (and disappearing!) at different rates and at different times, communities are shifting at independent and co-dependent paces, and individuals and families are under increasing pressure to stay relevant.

Humans are not afraid of change, but we fear the unknown. When we hit the limits of our imaginations, we push back toward the knowable, often with very ugly consequences. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the state-sponsored fake news phenomenon, and the rise of slavery advocate Roy Moore in Alabama – all inconceivable a decade ago – serve as examples that humans are prone to a retreat toward bigotry, ignorance, and hate when confronted with uncertainty. Like the followers of Ned Ludd worked to sabotage the industrial movement in the 19th century, these socially regressive Neo-Luddites subvert technological change to regress society toward an imagined past, no matter how horrible, that presents themselves with a sense of certainty.

A community cannot progress technologically while sabotaging itself socially. While our singularities may be unavoidable, we can at least learn how to cope with them by learning to embrace the unknown. This, at the forefront, requires a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity from all of us.

Our schools, which are designed to prepare youth for static futures, need to be urgently repurposed to prepare all of society for the unknowable. Imagination, creativity, and innovation, together with support for greater agency and self-efficacy must underpin serious efforts to achieve meaningful outcomes for all learners. We must balance core content knowledge with soft skills such as simulational thinking, knowledge production, technology, intercultural communication, critical and multi-paradigmatic thinking, focused imagination, developed intuition, emotional intelligence, and systems design.

Are you ready to take the dive into teaching and learning for the unknowable? Continue on with our series on invisible learning:


The Singularity and schools: An interview with Vernor Vinge

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

Last week, I spoke with Vernor Vinge [Wikipedia | website], a retired San Diego State University professor of mathematics. He is better known as a five-time Hugo Award-winning science fiction author. His works include True Names, Fast Times at Fairmont High, and Rainbows End. Most importantly, his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” argues that accelerating technological change will bring about the end of the human era as we know it, and that the world will become so complex and foreign to human observers, it will be impossible to predict what will happen next.

Ray Kurzweil and others have since contributed to the popularization of the Singularity, but the conversation has been centered on technological determinism. In a world that is consumed by accelerating change, what are the implications for systems that are at risk of being outpaced — namely, human systems? And, what are the implications for how we will learn and work in the near future?


I got this sort of vision where the human workplace is scattered in both space and time, and for a single career, it’s not a merely a matter of changing your career every couple years, it’s a matter of actually changing your point of attention on smaller time scales.

What can science fiction tell us about our future?

According to Vinge, a lot. He helped introduce the cyberpunk genre in the early with his 1981 Novel, true Names. He says, “the technological situation we have now is very similar to what was described in True Names, which actually was implicitly targeted in the year 2014,” but much of that can be attributed to pure luck.

The future authors of the genre have envisioned, he argues, has emerged today as a mix of expected and unexpected dystopian and hopeful elements. Society of today, he believes, has not changed much since the early 1980s. Corporate dominance in government, for example, is still at the same level as it was before, and our views on technology shifted since 1984:

Before the year 1984, people generally looked at computers the way George Orwell did in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. After 1984, people had these great visions of computers freeing the people from tyrannies, and that is still a real possibility… and it is a possibility that has come true in large parts of the world. But, I would say the jury is still out as to what the ultimate effectiveness of computers and communication automation favors tyranny or favors liberty. I’m putting my bets on liberty, but I would say it’s not an obvious win in either direction.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Singularity was introduced at the NASA VISION-21 Symposium. What’s changed?

I’m still where I was in my 1993 essay that I gave at a NASA meeting, and that is that I define the Technological Singularity as being our developing, through technology, superhuman intelligence — or becoming, ourselves, superhuman intelligent through technology. And, I think calling that the Singularity is actually a very good term in the sense of vast and unknowable change. A qualitatively different sort of change than technological progress in the past.

He still believes four pathways could lead to the development of the Singularity by 2030:

  1. The development of computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent.
  2. Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  4. Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.

When asked which one is more likely, he hinted that he sees a digital Gaia of networks plus people emerging:

The networked sum of all the embedded microprocessors in all our devices becomes a kind of digital Gaia. That qualifies, as an ensemble, as a superhuman entity. That is probably the weirdest of all possibilities because, if anything, it looks like animism. And, sometimes I point to it when I want to make the issue that this can be very strange. I think that actually the networking of embedded microprocessors is going like gangbusters. The network that is the Internet plus humanity, that is also going with extraordinarily surprises, if you just look at the successes in the various schemes that go by names like crowdsourcing. To me, those have been astounding, and should give people real pause with how to use the intellectual resources actually that we have out there. So far, we do not have a single computer that is really of human-level intelligence, and I think that is going to happen. But, it is a kind of an amazing thing that we have an installed base of seven billion of these devices out there.

What does this mean for schools?

Vinge believes talking about post-Singularity situations in education are impractical. In theory, is impossible for us to predict or comprehend what will happen, so we should not focus our attention on worrying about post-Singularity futures. Rather, we should focus on the ramp-up toward the Singularity, our unique talents, and how we can network together to utilize them in imaginative ways:

Talking about the run-up to the Singularity makes sense for several different reasons. One is, we have to get through it. The other is that it is our opportunity, as the chief players… it’s our opportunity to make things turn out safely and happily. In the meantime, at just the level of just getting one’s job done, I think there are real changes that are going to be happening in education and more broadly in training issues. I think one thing that is going to become more-and-more evident is the fact that we have seven billion people out there who are variously good … very good … at different things. And, there are ways of enhancing and amplifying that by collaboration. And, when I say “collaboration” […] it is a very good thing. But, if you look at some of the group mind projects and crowdsourcing projects, there is very great imagination that can be exercised in making collaboration effective. One thing is to interface people who have very different skills — that can actually be helped a lot by the network.

When dealing with unknown futures, it remains unknown how to prepare people best for these futures. He states that the best pathway involves teaching children “to learn how to learn” (a key theme in Fast Times at Fairmont High), and that we need to encourage the development of positive futures by attending to diversity in our learning systems. We need to not facilitate the formation of diverse students, but we also need to abandon a monoculture approach to education and attend to a diverse ecology of options in teaching and evaluation.

Most importantly, to meet the individual needs of students, he believes, we need to focus on “shifting the emphasis from intense attention to process and having the process of the teaching right … shifting that attention to having independent rating agencies that are not so much interested in process as they are in giving reliable rating information to people who have to judge the results of the money that is being spent on the education.”

Rethinking human capital development in Knowmad Society

Note: This text is adapted from the original Spanish-language text that I wrote for the first Chapter 1 in Invisible Learning (a book co-written with Cristóbal Cobo). An updated and expanded version of this text will also appear in the next volume, Knowmad Society, due for release later in 2012, and is being shared early to ignite discussion for the upcoming On the Horizon special issue on “Borderless Society.” (The call for papers is still open.)

This working paper presents a framework for conceptualizing changes in society, driven by the forces of globalization, transformations of knowledge society, and accelerating change. The framework is centered on three social paradigms, which Moravec (2008c) labels “Society 1.0,” “Society 2.0,” and “Society 3.0” — expressed as Industrial Society, Knowledge Society, and Knowmad Society. Society 1.0 reflects the norms and practices of pre-industrial to industrial civilization. Society 2.0 refers to the radical social transformations that we are experiencing today, largely due to technological change. The 3.0 or Knowmad Society points to a state of society that is in our near future, where accelerating technological change is projected to have huge transformative consequences. This text considers the human capital development consequences and necessary transformations in education to meet the needs of a rapidly transforming society, and looks into some of the challenges facing Knowmad Society in an era of accelerating change.

The paradoxical co-existence of “Education 1.0” in “Society 3.0”

Society 1.0

Society 1.0 refers to the agricultural to industrial-based society that was largely present through the 18th century through the end of the 20th century. In the early portion of this period, economic activity was centered on family-based enterprises. Children learned at home, and children worked at home. Kids and adults were engaged cross-generationally. Not only were children valuable contributors to the economy at all levels, but adults and kids learned from each other. This paradigm facilitated “learning by doing,” which was formally adopted by organizations such as 4-H, which embraced the principle that if you teach youth ideas and skills, they would, in turn, teach their parents (4-H, 2010).

The rise of the industrial economy saw growth in wage and salary-based enterprises. Kids began to work at low-level, and often dangerous jobs, until they were segregated from the workplace to maintain their welfare. Thus also began the industrialization of education, where, separated from the primary production economy, children were placed into an institutional mechanism where kids learned skills from adults (and not vice-versa), and eventually emerged from the system as “educated,” young adults, immediately employable for the industrial economy.

In Society 1.0, we interpreted data – leading to the information age. By and large, our relationships were hierarchical. That is, was easy to tell how we related with each other. Companies had reporting structures that were easy to decipher. And, we had siloed jobs and roles within organizations and communities. Moreover, we did everything we could to avoid chaos and ambiguity.Leading toward the end of the 20th century, this model worked fine. It was easy to understand. It was easily operationalized. And, it benefitted from an education system that produced workers for the industrial-modeled economy.

By the end of the 20th century, the industrialization of education and proliferation of meritocratic academic structures in the 1.0 paradigm all but eliminated the recognition of “learning by doing.” Moreover, this evolved norm generally provided socioeconomic advantages for those that successfully navigated the industrialized meritocracy (better jobs, better pay) than those who avoided it or did not survive the system .

Society 2.0

The appearance of Society 2.0 is associated with the emergence of the knowledge society that materialized in the 20th century (see esp. Drucker, 1969, 1985). Information needed to be interpreted, necessitating the creation of knowledge workers. However, as Polyani (1968) explains, the nature of knowledge, itself, is personal and is composed of tacit and explicit components. They combine in the creation of personally-constructed meanings that defy the absolute objectivity of Society 1.0’s industrial information model. Moreover, as social animals, humans engage in social networking activities and share their personal knowledge across ever complex systems. This growing ecosystem of personally-constructed meanings and values facilitated the creation of the field of knowledge management in the latter half of the 20th century, which attempted to manage the new elements of chaos and ambiguity related to personal knowledge that were inputted into organizational systems.

Advances in information and communications technologies (ICTs) facilitated the broadened production of socially-constructed meanings. Many of these advancements are made possible through the convergence of the Internet (which has become the symbol for all things networking – personal and technological) and globalization, opening potentials for globally-aware and globally-present social networks. Tools that harness ICTs are being used not only to share ideas, but also to create new interpretations. A few scholars (see, for example, Mahiri, 2004) recognize this a “cut-and-paste” culture. One potent example of this cultural shift is hip-hop, which remixes and reuses sounds, lyrics, and imagery to create new meanings that are as much unique and individual to the hip-hop artist as the creator and the original source works. Other examples include the products of “Web 2.0” tools (see esp. Cobo Romaní & Pardo Kuklinski, 2007, for a detailed list and discussion) that allow individuals to harness new social networks to remix and share ideas and media (e.g., blogs, wikis, and YouTube).

The mass availability of these tools also allows everyday people to participate in an expanded array of vocations and citizen engagement. For example, tools such as blogs, Twitter and YouTube allow for the formation of citizen journalists, who are able to directly compete with mainstream media at a miniscule fraction of the cost that mainstream media needs to develop and deliver content . The technologies also allow for the formation of citizen scientists. By donating computing processing time, non-scientifically trained individuals can search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI@Home project), search for a cure for cancer (Folding@Home), and examine stellar particles retrieved from space (Stardust@Home). Likewise, the Audubon Society has long relied on its social network of professional and amateur birdwatchers to generate a statistically accurate estimate of birds within a given area. Furthermore, technologies allow for the greater democratization of markets, creating citizen capitalists that invest in a global market for ideas, talent, products, and other capital.

Social-orient ICTs carry constraints and limitations that forces individuals to transform how they think and act. For example, Twitter and mobile telephone short message services limit message sizes to 140 characters or less, forcing content producers to deliver clear, concise messages in limited space.

These transformations are leading to new questions for social and educational theorists that are still being debated – and research suggests that these changes are impacting the fundamental organization of the human brain (see esp. Small & Vorgan, 2008). Some key questions arising are: Does Society 2.0 dumb people down, or are we creating a new, hyper-connected, social super-intelligence? If technologically-savvy youth are composing their thoughts in 140 characters or less, are we facing a loss of literacy? In a world of Twitter, do we have any capacity for full-length novels? In a world with YouTube, can we sit through feature length films? Is technological change, paired with globalization, leading to a loss of our cultural heritages? And, finally, what is needed from education to remain relevant in a cut-and-paste society where information flows freely?

Society 3.0

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson (interviewed in Gladstone, 1999)

For most of us, Society 3.0 is in the future – possibly in the distant future. But, for a few people leading the change toward this proto-paradigm, it is very real. Three drivers are leading us to the formation of Society 3.0, which describes a world that is somewhere between “just around the corner” and “just beyond the horizon” of today’s state-of-the-art:

  1. Accelerating technological and social change;
  2. Continuing globalization and horizontalization of knowledge and relationships; and,
  3. Innovation society fueled by knowmads.

Kurzweil (1999) postulates a theory he labels the Law of Accelerating Returns to describe the evolutionary process that leads to accelerating technological and social change:

As order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (that is, the time interval between salient events grows shorter as time passes). (Kurzweil, 1999, p. 30)

Figure 1. Accelerating Technological Change

[Note. The J-curve of accelerating change illustrates the exponential development and exponentially reduced costs of technologies. One example is evident in the evolution of microprocessors, which follow Moore’s (1965) Law of doubling the number of transistors on integrated circuits every two years, while also reducing the costs of associated processing speed, memory capacities, etc. The inflection point on the graph is the approximate location of the Technological Singularity, at which point change occurs so rapidly that the human mind cannot imagine what will happen next. One way of thinking of the magnitude of accelerating change is that if Moore’s Law is followed for the next 600 years, a single microprocessor would have the computational equivalency of the known Universe (Krauss & Starkman, 2004).]

In other words, change is occurring rapidly, and the pace of change is increasing. Kurzweil’s idea is founded on the proposal that as technologies evolve, the technologies improve, costs decrease; and, in turn, the process of technological evolution advances and speeds itself up, creating a J-curve of exponential, accelerating change (see Figure 1, above). As technologies evolve, so will society (Morgan, 1877). This acceleration of change, however, is also expected to impact human imagination and foresight. Vinge (1993) terms the theoretical limit of human foresight and imagination (illustrated as the inflection point on the above graphic) as the Technological Singularity. As the rate of technological advancement increases, it will become more difficult for a human observer to predict or understand future technological advancements.

Given the rate of exponential advancement illustrated by Kurzweil (2005), the rate of technological advancements in the future may seem nearly simultaneous. At this point, Vinge and Kurzweil hypothesize society will reach a point labeled the Technological Singularity. Kurzweil further believes the Singularity will emerge as the complex, seemingly chaotic outcome of converging technologies (esp. nanotechnology, robots, computing, and the human integration of these technologies).

As previously noted, technological change facilitates social change. Near future technological advancements are therefore expected to ignite periods of social transformation that defies human imagination today.

The impacts of accelerating technological and social changes on education are enormous. Today’s stakeholders in our youths’ future must prepare them for futures that none of us can even dream are possible.

Continuing globalization is leading to a horizontalized diffusion of knowledge in domains that were previously siloed, creating heterarchical relationships, and providing new opportunities for knowledge to be applied contextually in innovative contexts. In learning contexts, this means that we are becoming not only co-learners, but also co-teachers as we co-constructively produce new knowledge and its applications.

Table 1 summarizes key differences between the three social paradigms that we explore in this book. In the shift from Society 1.0 to Society 3.0, basic relationships transform from linear, mechanistic and deterministic order to a new order that is highly non-linear, synergetic and design-oriented. The effects of accelerating change suggest that causality, itself, may seem to express anticausal characteristics, due to the near instantaneousness of events experienced by a society in a period of continuous, accelerating change. Therefore, how reality is contextualized (and contextually responded to) becomes much more important to citizens in Society 3.0 than it was in previous paradigms.

Table 1: Societies 1.0 through 3.0 across various domains

Knowmads in Society 3.0

A knowmad is what Moravec (2008a) terms a nomadic knowledge and innovation worker – that is, a creative, imaginative, and innovative person who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere. Moreover, knowmads are valued for the personal knowledge that they possess, and this knowledge gives them a competitive advantage. Industrial society is giving way to knowledge and innovation work. Whereas the industrialization of Society 1.0 required people to settle in one place to perform a very specific role or function, the jobs associated with knowledge and information workers have become much less specific in regard to task and place. Moreover, technologies allow for these new paradigm workers to work either at a specific place, virtually, or any blended combination. Knowmads can instantly reconfigure and recontextualize their work environments, and greater mobility is creating new opportunities. Consider, for example, coffee shops. These environments have become the workplace of choice for many knowmads. What happens when the investment banker sitting next to the architect have a conversation? What new ideas, products, and services might be created?

The remixing of places and social relationships is also impacting education. Students in Knowmad Society should learn, work, play, and share in almost any configuration. But there is little evidence to support any claim that education is moving to the 3.0 paradigm.


  1. Are not restricted to a specific age.
  2. Build their personal knowledge through explicit information gathering and tacit experiences, and leverage their personal knowledge to produce new ideas.
  3. Are able to contextually apply their ideas and expertise in various social and organizational configurations.
  4. Are highly motivated to collaborate, and are natural networkers, navigating new organizations, cultures, and societies.
  5. Purposively use new technologies to help them solve problems and transcend geographical limitations.
  6. Are open to sharing what they know, and invite the open access to information, knowledge and expertise from others.
  7. Can unlearn as quickly as they learn, adopting new ideas and practices as necessary.
  8. Thrive in non-hierarchical networks and organizations.
  9. Develop habits of mind and practice to learn continuously.
  10. Are not afraid of failure.

(Note: List inspired by Cobo, 2008)

When we compare the list of skills required of knowmads to the outcomes of mainstream education, we wonder: What are we educating for? Are we educating to create factory workers and bureaucrats? Or, are we educating to create innovators, capable of leveraging their imagination and creativity?


Invisible learning a new expressions of human capital development in Knowmad Society

Knowmad Society necessitates the transformation from industrial paradigm, “banking” pedagogies (see esp. Freire, 1968) that transmit “just in case” information and knowledge (i.e., memorization of the world’s capitals) toward modes that utilize the invisible spaces to develop personally- and socially- meaningful, actionable knowledge. There is growing recognition that people with unique, key knowledge and skills (i.e., knowmads) are critical for the success of modern organizations. Godin (2010) argues successful people in today’s organizations serve as “linchpins.” From an interview with Goden by Hyatt (2010), Godin states:

The linchpin insists on making a difference, on leading, on connecting with others and doing something I call art. The linchpin is the indispensable one, the one the company can’t live without. This is about humanity, not compliance.

In their book, The Element, Robinson & Aronica (2009) interview many people who have experienced success in their careers, and identified that the people they spoke with found their “element” – that is, their success was largely due to the fact that they did something they enjoyed in addition to being good at it. This runs contrary to the “just in case” industrial model of education, and suggests that if we enable more people to pursue their passions and support them, they can achieve success.

In the 3.0 proto-paradigm, the inherent chaos and ambiguity related to tremendous technological and social changes call for a resurgence of “learning by doing.” In a sense, we are creating the future as we go along. As co-learners and co-teachers, we are co-responsible for helping each other find our own elements along our pathways of personal, knowmadic development.

How do we measure learning in the invisible spaces?

The cult of educational measurement

A key concern for policymakers and other stakeholders in education is, what is being learned? In an education system focused on industrial production, this is an important quality control issue.

The linearity of the industrial paradigm thrives on mechanical processes. For example, groups of learners are expected to read books progressively, chapter-by-chapter, and recite the information and “facts” they acquired linearly through memorization. In this paradigm, the use of summative evaluation (i.e., tests) is de rigueur.

Throughout the world, we have adopted this culture of industrial learning and evaluation en masse, and created a cult of educational measurement to support it. In the United States, this is manifested through the testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. In Spain, the cult is evident in the filtering processes that lead to the Prueba de Acceso. In the United Kingdom, it is expressed within the National Curriculum (Education Reform Act of 1988). And so on.

With policies with names like “No Child Left Behind,” it is hard to disagree: is the alternative to leave children behind? The unfortunate reality, however, is that in these industrial policies we tend to leave many children behind. These industrial-modeled, testing-centric regimes produce exactly the wrong products for the 21st Century, but is appropriate for what the world needed between the 19th century through 1950. As Robinson (2001) and others have argued, these fractured memorization models oppose the creative, synthetic thinking required for work in the new economy and effective citizenship.

Leapfrogging beyond the cult of educational measurement

Focus on how to learn, not what to learn.

In the Invisible Learning proto-paradigm, rote, “just in case” memorization is replaced with learning that is intended to be personally meaningful for all participants in the learning experience. Moreover, the application of knowledge toward innovative problem solving takes primacy over the regurgitation of previous knowledge or “facts.” In essence, as discussed in the previous chapter, students very much become knowledge brokers (Meyer, 2010).

Moreover, the Invisible Learning paradigm enables students to act on their knowledge, applying what they know to solve problems –including problems that have not been solved before. This contextual, purposive application of personal knowledge to create innovative solutions negates the value of non-innovation-producing standardized testing.

The “learning by doing” aspect of Invisible Learning that focuses on how to learn rather than what to learn suggests that measurement or evaluation needs to be outcomes-based in the same way that we evaluate innovations:

  • What happened?
  • Did something new happen? Something unexpected?
  • Was there a positive benefit?
  • What can others learn from the experience?

Although there is a large body of literature supporting the need for formative assessments in education (see, for example, Armstrong, 1985; Marzano, 2003; Stiggins, 2008; Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappuis, 2007), as well as a rich educational literature theory base that suggests we need to move toward learner-centered learning (perhaps the most vocal being Dewey, 1915; Freire, 2000), summative evaluations still persist in formal learning environments that present little value to the learner. Strategies to bring the informal into the formal are already present and widely adopted in business, industry, and, ironically, within some teacher education programs.

For example, Pekka Ihanainen (2010) explains that Finnish vocational teacher education, for example, is built on a dialogical professional development model. Knowledge and expertise areas of the teachers in training are identified and compared with their occupational competency requirements and goals. Following this assessment, career development trajectories and educational pathways are developed. The system is not designed to determine only how teachers in training meet state requirements, but also relates to their individual interests and professional development goals.

Finally, releasing ourselves from the cult of measurement requires faith and confidence that we are always learning. As we will discuss in the following chapters, as human beings, we are always engaged in learning– it is one of our most natural activities.

Implementing Invisible Learning: Making the invisible visible

The difficulties in mainstreaming Invisible Learning in Western education are daunting. Formal systems are deeply entrenched. Governments believe in the formal approach (it looks good on paper and within state and national budgets). Entire industries (i.e., textbooks, educational measurement) are built around it. And, the scale of the industrialization of education leaves many people wondering if it’s worth fighting against.

The system is further reinforced, by design, to change at a glacial pace. While markets can transform and reinvent themselves virtually overnight, governments cannot. They are designed to be slow and deliberative. As a result, they tend to lag significantly and react to change more often than they proactively design orpreact to beneficial changes.

Paradoxically, despite being key components of systems most responsible for developing human capital and human development futures, education is designed to change even slower. Educational institutions and systems report to governments, respond to governmental policies, and align their programs to satisfy requirements and funding formulae established by legislative bodies. Moreover, these criteria, including establishing what to teach, depends on who sits on what committee at any given time. By relying on personalities, political gamesmanship, and feedback-looped special interests from the formal educational industrial complex, many question if the system has perhaps become too large, too slow, and unfocused.

The problem is, the emerging pressures of Society 3.0 require educational transformation today. Schools need to develop students that can design future jobs, industries and knowledge fields that we have not dreamed of. Schools need to operate as futurists, not laggards.

Is educational reform worth fighting for?


Rather, it’s time to start anew. As Sir Ken Robinson eloquently states, we need a revolution, not reform (TED, 2010).

Revolutions are difficult to ignite. An entire genre of literature that Carmen Tschofen terms “change manifestos” has emerged in education that is rich in calls for change, but falls flat on actually creating the change it calls for (Moravec, 2010). The system, perhaps, has too much inertia. As Harkins and Moravec (2006) suggest in their “Leapfrog University” memo series to the University of Minnesota, perhaps a parallel approach is necessary.

Rather than fighting the system, students, parents, communities, and other life-long learners can invest in establishing parallel, new schools and/or networks of learning, discovering, innovating, and sharing. And some communities are already leading the way with innovative initiatives. For example:

  • Shibuya University Network (Japan): “Yasuaki Sakyo, president of Shibuya University, believes that education should be lifelong. At Shibuya, courses are free and open to all; classes take place in shops, cafes and outside; and anyone can be a teacher” (CNN, 2007). In essence, the entire community and its environment have become the co-learners, co-teachers, and classroom.
  • The Bank of Common Knowledge (Banco Común de Conocimientos, Spain) “is a pilot experience dedicated to the research of social mechanisms for the collective production of contents, mutual education, and citizen participation. It is a laboratory platform where we explore new ways of enhancing the distribution channels for practical and informal knowledge, as well as how to share it” (Bank of Common Knowledge, n.d.).
  • (Technology, Entertainment, Design, USA) challenges lecture-based education by creating “a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other” (TED, n.d.).

Redefining human capital development

To move forward in making Invisible Learning visible, we need to engage in conversations on what futures we want to create. We need to clarify our visions of the future. In China, India, and throughout much of the developing world, the vision is simple: Catch up to the West through planned development. But, in the United States, Europe, and much of the rest of the Western world, concrete visions of where we want to be in the future are absent. We assert that we either do not know where we want to be in the future or we lack the foresight to imagine ourselves in a future that is very different from today.

The consequence is that we are not making investments into our human capital development systems that will enable us to meet needs set by future challenges. We need to prepare our youth and other members of society for a future and workforce needs that we cannot imagine. Moreover, given the potential for today’s youth to be engaged productively in a “post-Singularity” era, it is important to assist them in the development of skills and habits of mind (i.e., the Leapfrog Institutes’ liberal skills outlined in the “Leapfrog” memo series archived at Education Futures). that will foster life-long learning and the innovative applications of their knowledge.

This lack of vision –and acting on it– impacts not only education, but also other areas of our socioeconomic wellbeing. Bob Herbert (2010) recently wrote for the New York Times on the United States’ new unfound willingness to invest in ideas that could increase potentials for future growth and prosperity:

The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough. (Herbert, 2010)

As organizations, communities, and nations, we need to set visions for the futures we will co-create, and act upon them. Throughout the remainder of this volume, we explore some of the methods individuals, teams, and organizations may employ to help develop these visions of the future.

Using technology purposively

When engaged in conversations about invisible learning or other innovations in education, there is a tendency for people to gravitate their thoughts toward technology as if it can serve as a “silver bullet” to slay the allegorical werewolf of the persistence of the Education 1.0 model. Innovation in education does not mean “technology.” Douglas Adams (1999) elaborated on the challenges of defining the purpose of the Internet:

Another problem with the net is that it’s still ‘technology’, and ‘technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I’m sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for ‘productivity.’ (Adams, 1999)

Moreover, we use the term “technology” to describe new tools that we do not understand. In other words, the purposive uses of “technology” are not well defined. As a result, in educational contexts, we often take the best technologies and squander the opportunities they afford us. Roger Schank (in Molist, 2010) puts it bluntly:

It’s the same garbage, but placed differently. Schools select new technologies and ruin them. For example, when television came, every school put one in each classroom, but used it to do exactly the same things as before. The same with computers today. Oh, yes, we have e-larning! What does it mean? Then they give the same terrible course, but online, using computers in a stupid way.(Molist, 2010)

Conversely, the Invisible Learning approach to technology is purposive, pragmatic and centered at improving the human experience at its core. Specifically, this means that it is:

  • Well-defined: The purpose and applications of particular technologies need to be specified. Bringing in technologies for the sake of using technologies will likely lead to their misuse, underuse, and/or the creation of unintended outcomes.
  • Focused on developing mindware: The focus of technologies should not be on hardware or software, but on how they enhance our mindware – that is, they focus is placed on how technologies can support our imaginations, creativity, and help us innovate.
  • Social: The use of technologies is often a social experience and their social applications should be addressed. This includes the leverage of social media tools for learning such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., which are commonly blocked from formal education settings.
  • Experimental: Embraces the concept of “learning by doing,” and allows for trial and error which can lead to successes and the occasional failure – but does not create failures.
  • Continuously evolving: As an area for “beta testing” new ideas and approaches to problems, it is continuously in a state of remixing and transformation. As society evolves continuously, so must our learning and sharing.

Who gets to leapfrog to Knowmad Society?

Lastly, a problem facing Invisible Learning is one of equity and equality. Is it appropriate for a select group of “invisible learners” to leapfrog ahead of peers who may be trapped within the paradigm of “education 1.0?” If 1% of the population benefits from Invisible Learning, what should we do about the other 99%? Should they not have the right to leapfrog ahead, too?

We believe so. But, we also recognize the incredible inertia mainstream Education 1.0 possesses. Given rates of accelerating technological, social and economic change, we cannot wait. The revolution in learning and human capital development needs to begin now. This may mean starting out small, working parallel with entrenched systems, but it also means we need to lead by example.



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Perspectives on Invisible Learning

By popular demand, here are the slides from my Invisible Learning “stump lecture” from the past month:

In an era of globalization and “flattening” of our relatiohships around the Earth, how can we learn better? What happened to learning as we moved from the stable structures of the 20th century to fluid and amorphic structures of the 21st century? What roles do schools and colleges play when you can learn in any context and at any time? Do we continue with formal learning or do we formalize informal learning?

This is an open invitation to explore some of the best ideas emerging around the planet that are contributing to a new ecology of learning.

More info:

Next Horizon Forum roundtable: Education and the Technological Singularity

An invitation to the next Horizon Forum meeting at the University of Minnesota:

Education and the Technological Singularity

January 27, 2010

11:30am – 1:30pm

250 Wulling Hall (U of M East Bank)

At the next Horizon Forum, you are invited to join the discussion, moderated by Arthur Harkins and John Moravec, with special guests, as we probe into the deep future of education.

The New York Times’ John Tierney published an interview with Ray Kurzweil on accelerating change:

Now, [Kurzweil] sees biology, medicine, energy and other fields being revolutionized by information technology. His graphs [of accelerating technological change] already show the beginning of exponential progress in nanotechnology, in the ease of gene sequencing, in the resolution of brain scans. With these new tools, he says, by the 2020s we’ll be adding computers to our brains and building machines as smart as ourselves.

What does this mean for schools today? Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity is criticized for being technologically deterministic. But, are there relevant social and cultural aspects related to the human experience? At the Horizon Forum’s next open roundtable, will explore what changes could take place in our schools and learning institutions within the next 35 years as technology transforms the human mind and human potential… and what we can start doing today!

Lunch and validated parking will be provided. Please RSVP your attendance by 10am on January 25 to Carole MacLean at or call 612-625-5060.

The Horizon Forum is sponsored by the Preparation to Practice Group in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. For for information about the Horizon Forum, contact John Moravec at or call 612-625-3517.

The Education Futures timeline of education

Education Futures celebrates its first five years of exploring new futures in human capital development with a timeline of the history of education from 1657-2045. This timeline provides not only a glimpse into modern education, but plots out a plausible future history for human capital development. The future history presented is intended to be edgy, but also as a conversation starter on futures for education and future thinking in human capital development.

As always, we invite your feedback and suggestions for further development! We expect many enhancements and updates to this resource in the near future.

Kurzweil's Transcendent Man

We haven’t had an opportunity to screen Ray Kurzweil‘s the film, Transcendent Man, yet, but The Futurist magazine published a preview:

Scene: A movie theater on the west side of Manhattan during the Tribeca Film Festival. The audience teems with hip New York film students eager to see the world premiere of a new documentary. They’re joined, unexpectedly, by computer scientists, geneticists, and futurists from Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong. The lights dim. After a brief opening, inventor Ray Kurzweil appears on the screen, looks squarely into the camera, and says, “I’m never going to die.”

So began the world premiere of Barry Ptolemy’s Transcendent Man, a feature-length film that chronicles Kurzweil’s ideas on the future of technological innovation. Chief among his forecasts: In the next 30 years, humans will use genomics, nanotechnology, and even artificial intelligence to escape death.

The film is in limited release and we will post more about the film and its implications for education as soon as we have an opportunity to view it. In the meantime, Read more at The Futurist or visit the film’s website.

The Singularity is nearer than we might think

The future is getting harder to imagine –so much that the SciFi channel is giving up on science fiction and rebranding the channel. Rather than pushing for bold futures, network executives at NBC Universal have decided to retreat into the make-believe worlds fantasy, the supernatural and pro wrestling. From their media release:

By changing the name to Syfy, which remains phonetically identical, the new brand broadens perceptions and embraces a wider range of current and future imagination-based entertainment beyond just the traditional sci-fi genre, including fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, reality, mystery, action and adventure. It also positions the brand for future growth by creating an ownable trademark that can travel easily with consumers across new media and nonlinear digital platforms, new international channels and extend into new business ventures.

This change highlights a key problem: it’s getting hard to imagine the future.


Science fiction literature of the previous two centuries predicted amazing things (i.e., artificial satellites, undersea exploration, teleconferencing) that have become common elements of our lives. This worked well when the pace of change was much slower. But, over the past few decades, the rate of social and technological change has started to take off, and the genre is grinding to a halt as people hit the limits of their imagination and foresight. The moment where change occurs so rapidly that we cannot imagine what will happen next is the Technological Singularity.

Perhaps SciFi’s move away from science fiction is a sign the Singularity is nearer than we think?

On the approaching Singularity


The Star Tribune’s Karen Youso interviewed me for what I thought would be a short sidebar article on accelerating change, but it wound up taking the full front page of the Variety section in today’s paper. I’m absolutely delighted to see mainstream media discuss the Technological Singularity! … especially since the article contains questions for human capital development and our education systems!

Read the article here.
My favorite part:

“We send kids to school, they move grade by grade, using the 18th-century model, and during that time, the whole world has changed so much. How relevant is that education?” asked Moravec. “We’re training them for jobs that existed 20 years ago, not for those that’ll exist when they finish school.”

Want more? Here are online resources for learning more, gathered by the StarTribune.

Singularity University

Singularity University

This past week

A shockwave passed through the singularity community today with the public launch of Singularity University at the NASA Ames campus in Silicon Valley.  Singularity University aims to assemble a world class community of thought leaders, academics, and entreprenuers across the many fields of exponentially advancing technologies (nanotechnology, genetics, medicine, artificial intelligence, etc.) in order to address humanity’s grand challenges.

With significant backing from Google and NASA, and with the participation of a renowned cast of faculty and advisors, Singularity University is poised to literally overnight become a world class institution for the innovation, collaboration, and leadership that will allow the world to capitalize on the great promise of technology to solve the world’s greatest problems…

Founded by Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis (X Prize Foundation), and Larry Page (Google), the Singularity University focus its curriculum on technologies surrounding:

  • Future Studies & Forecasting
  • Networks & Computing Systems
  • Biotechnology & Bioinformatics
  • Nanotechnology
  • Medicine, Neuroscience & Human Enhancement
  • AI, Robotics, & Cognitive Computing
  • Energy & Ecological Systems
  • Space & Physical Sciences
  • Policy, Law & Ethics
  • Finance & Entrepreneurship

What’s missing, however, is a human capital development focus.  As the world approaches the Technological Singularity, how can we design better human capital futures?  Moreover, what are the social, cultural, and educational elements we need to start studying and working on today to ensure our success? …our survival?