Only the polymaths will thrive

The technological past belonged to specialists. In future, we will increasingly demand people who can bring together science, art, design, ethics, empathy, craft, and more; and synthesise ideas from many domains into solutions to deep and difficult problems.

A famous quip about the technology business comes from Inter co-founder Andy Grove, who wrote a book on how “Only the paranoid survive”. This requires senior management to adopt an attitude that focuses on the threat of strategic inflections that demand a new approach. In the case of Intel, this could be the shift from desktops to laptops (hence making power consumption more important), or PCs to smartphones (based on integrated systems rather than discrete chips).

My own observation of the technology industry leads me to a somewhat different point of view. Paranoia is only a defence strategy for survival. To thrive, you need polymaths. Indeed, if survival is your highest aspiration, it may become its own punishment.

The human history of the last few centuries has seen increased labour specialisation. Accomplishment has become attached to being an expert in something. The systems of reward are constructed accordingly. Educational strivers get PhDs that make them “world experts in virtually nothing”. Endless academic papers are published that are read by nobody. Work promotion is tied to being a “technical specialist” with appropriate professional accreditation.

My sense is that this era is coming to an end, possibly faster than expected. There are many reasons. A key one is the rise of machine learning: merely “knowing” things will be totally commoditised, and even “understanding” will become insufficient in many domains. Eventually nobody will get a Cisco or Microsoft certified qualification in an established body of static knowledge, simply because robotechnicians will outpace you in every aspect of the job.

However, blaming technology itself for this displacement of people is an insufficient analysis. The deeper reason is that the nature of the problems we are tackling are higher-order ones, and these require a more systemic and holistic viewpoint. When computing was about tabulating machines and process automation, it was OK to have a narrow algorithmic viewpoint.

Now we are looking at how technology can help us to solve problems of an aging population needing care from a shrinking pool of youth, global conflict from unjust resource allocation, and the diseases of affluence and convenience. As a species, we must turn away from strip-mining the biosphere, and become its guardians and gardeners. As many have previously noted, there is no Planet B: space may be the final frontier, but inhabiting new spinning globes won’t undo our wrecking of this space rock we’re presently all marooned on.

Tackling “wicked” systemic issues requires a different attitude, both in the large of conception, as well as in the detail of execution. The technological services we offer will provide interventions into complex systems, which are in turn entangled with feedback and learning loops of many kinds: economic, legal, political, biological, ecological, etc. Whilst there will be a great effort expended on basic enablers of batteries, sensors, actuators, interfaces, etc. the real action will be in the models of cause and effect.

The research I participated in for the Hypervoice Consortium concluded that the centre of gravity of the technology industry is shifting. Firstly, it is moving from designing technical systems that “make logical sense” to ones focused on engineering feeling states and ethical outcomes. Secondly, it is transforming from a “masculine” command and control paradigm (driven by males) towards a more “feminine” and ecological viewpoint, as the yin and yang are rebalanced.

The HyperWellbeing event I attended recently reinforced this view. The symbiosis of humans and computers is well underway. Wetware, hardware and software become one; carbon and silicon react through information instead of chemistry. Your Facebook page isn’t just an image of you, it IS YOU. How you exist in this world is inseparable from the digital presentation we have constructed for ourselves. This process is going to deepen in a way few can yet comprehend: your wellbeing ‘guardian avatar’ may know more about you in a few years than all medical records on earth captured when I was born.

So, where does this leave us? We will find work in the gaps between the “alien intelligence” systems. Our jobs will become arrangers of these systems, perhaps a little like how a florist picks flowers to satisfy a particular occasion. Roses and carnations have very different social meanings, and machines won’t always be able to tell the right tool for the job. We will be like airline pilots, supervising systems waiting for extreme failure modes.

This task, too, will fade over time. What will be left is what is most human: to love, and laugh, and sing and dance. Nothing from a machine will ever displace or replace that.

When I look back at my own education, I feel a little sadness. Yes, I was a star pupil with a scholarship to a top private school, and went on to take a numerate degree at a global “top 10” university. This process gave me deep knowledge, and drove me to specialise in what I excelled at. Yet it also took me away from music and art, as I was not so adept at them when compared to other people. This stole a little of my humanity and spirit, and traded it for a pocket full of promissory notes of material success.

Schools are burdened with the anxiety of standardised tests, and separate the bodies of our children from their minds at an early age. We each suffer judgement in comparison to others in a fake competition that mistakes points for progress. There’s no exam in kindness or generosity, yet these are core to our wellbeing. We are also taught not to challenge the wisdom we are being offered, or its implicit values and framing. This is recipe for disaster in a post-industrial age of machine superintelligence.

For instance, in my realm of telecoms, I have stood atop the climbing frame of many intellectual giants, and have had a chance to peek at what can be seen. What I found is that a lot of the textbooks are either completely wrong, fundamentally misframed, or deeply unhelpful. They’ve mistaken a corner case of networks (the TCP/IP architecture) for the whole space, and confused datacomms with distributed computing. Even within the narrow confines of scientific inquiry, it’s a slurry pit of nonsense.

I suspect many of our bodies of knowledge will require a deep reinterpretation in the next few decades. Our understanding of economics and biology are already in turmoil. The very nature of scientific inquiry is being examined as results often cannot be reproduced, fraud becomes common, and the meme pool becomes polluted. The mistaking of consensus for truth has undermined the institution on which progress in knowledge accumulation is being made. Will children leave school ignorant of both the philosophy of science, and its failings as a fallible human institution?

The “technologist” of the future cannot be constrained to geeky introverts. A great logician who is a poor lover may be more of a curse than a cure for humanity’s ills. Empathy skills will often matter far more than coding skills. Institutes of Technology where a priesthood becomes obsessed with the gizmoficiation of life will be seen as a barbaric development. (And teaching kids imperative programming languages, which cannot easily be reasoned about in the abstract, will be seen as the height of irresponsibility.)

My advice to my own daughters will be clear: don’t feel like you need to go to university. Being a “monomath” is boring. I spent a lot of my degree reading The Economist (when it was still worth reading), and cruising the early Usenet to reflect on atheism and body modification subculture. The knowledge universities offer is now readily absorbed by any autodidact as a pure commodity. The credentials are pretty useless (trust me, I’ve got them) as what matters is experience at making your own trail, not following the horde.

If you want to become a great technologist, yes, gain an understanding of the tools you work with. But don’t stop there. Pick up a paintbrush, and express yourself in any way you like. It’s OK to trip off on entheogens to explore your mind. Experiment with your physiology to see how your bio machine works. Go care for disabled children in another country and culture. If you are cisgender, spend time with transgender people. If you’re right-handed, try a day with your left one being primary.

Why? We’re moving away from the industrial era of computing, and into a “biosynthesis” one. This demands new values and mind-sets. In the future economy, only the polymaths will thrive.

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