Monday, July 18, 2011

We Are All Obsolete

I've tried to keep this blog focused on academic science, but I've got an idea pinging around my head.  I know it's not original (for one, my cousin mentioned it in a car ten years ago), but here it is: we are all obsolete.  Every "successful" person today - whether they are a musician, scientist, programmer, or athlete - is going to be surpassed in our lifetime.

Historically, this is obvious.  In athletics, records constantly fall.  The average IQ scores which constantly go up. Groundbreaking papers are trivially reproducible.

Like dying, obsolescence happens slowly, so we can ignore it in our daily life. But it catches up to all of us.

There are a lot of factors pushing us towards obsolescence.  We all lose intelligence as we age.  There is the glacial force of natural selection (if those still work in an age of medicine and a social safety net).  Today I'm going to focus on two factors that feed into this: the skyrocketing of the effective population; and the punctuated improvement of education.

Effective Population

I've had a fortunate education.  I started at a Montessori elementary school, where play time motivated me to work hard.  I went to a private high school that let me go to college a year early.  Made up my own major, computational neuroscience, at Case Western.  At Duke I was the first graduate student in a lab that eventually became a Howard Hughes lab.  And now I'm in Geneva with free reign to do taste research in an effectively olfactory lab.

I got lucky.  Lucky I was effectively an only child; that my parents were educated and valued education; that I generally had good teachers along the way.  I'd guess only one in twenty Americans were as lucky as I was, but that could just be hubris.

When you think about the demographics of the world, it's easy to say that the US has 300 million people with the same opportunities, but that's not really the case. Some people estimate 25% of US children are in poverty.  If you take inverse of that number, only about 225 million people in the US have ample opportunities; this is the US's effective population.

I got the idea of effective population from Information Processing.  The idea is most applicable to a country like China, which has 1.3 billion people, but only about 300 million of them are able to compete in the global marketplace.  That is, only 300 million have the nutrition, education, and financial stability to go to college, get educated, and try to create something in this world.  The rest suffer from malnutrition, families that need the income, or simply from a lack of teachers necessary to educate a billion people.

If China's effective population is only 300 million, what about the rest of the world?  I already estimated that the US's effective population is around 225 million. Rather than type this out, I'll just estimate the effective population of the world (gotta love a table that intimates billions of people don't exist; all of these numbers are pulled out of my ass.  For example, how do I estimate Europe, which combines the well-developed West, and the still developing East?):

Effective percentage
Effective Population
300 million
225 million
1.3 billion
300 million
1.2 billion
120 million
Latin America
600 million
150 million
1.4 billion
140 million
700 million
420 million
Asia ex-China/India
1.5 billion
150 million

In total, about 1.2 billion, give our take a few hundred million.  And this number is always going up.

A few pundits have made waves recently pointing this out (Hot, Flat, and Crowded; Post-American World).  As a scientist this is both scary and exhilirating: the competition is going to get MUCH tougher; and hopefully the achievements will as well.  But unfortunately, it means my effective place in the world will go down.

Educational Improvement

Some systems are so vast and hard to measure accurately that it's easy for anyone to have an opinion on how they should be run: health care; taxation; and for this post, education.  Everyone has an idea how the education system should be run.  School system funding should be ample, teachers should be held accountable, parents should read to their children, and the students themselves need to be measured (but we shouldn't teach to the test).  We should teach people how to work together in groups, but not ignore basic skills.  The subjects should include the three R's, but also newer things like psychology and computer programming.  In the end, most people imprint on their own education, and have ideas about what did and did not work in theirs.

I have no idea how to improve education.  But I do know the way we educate people now is vestigial and will be improved upon.

Right now, most education treats students like cogs in a factory (I generally sneer at those RSA videos as middlebrow, but holy cow that drawing struck a chord).  We group people in classes because that's all we could do a century ago, if we wanted to educate as many people as possible.  We continue doing so due to the inertia of institutions.  And educational opportunities are almost non-existent for lower-class people, both in the US and around the world.

As I said, I don't know how to improve education, but there are lots of people trying different things.  For example a multitude of individualized education programs are sprouting up (I am biased in favour of this, having started in Montessori school).  There's the School of One in Brooklyn (more press here).  The Gates Foundation is trying a lot of different models, supporting guys like Salman Khan.  If one of these works, we can copy the model and disseminate it.

At the top of the post, I mentioned I had a good education, and that only one in twenty Americans might have had access to something like it.  But the world is getting wealthier all the time, increasing the number of people who will get educated.  And the education they're going to get continues to improve.  It's easy to imagine thirty years from now, when I'm sixty, there will be a whole new generation of scientists, from around the world, that have a better education than me.  I'm going to have to pit my ideas against theirs, hoping my experience can compensate.  And eventually, I'm not going to even going to be proven wrong, I'm not even going to be able to compete.

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