Rooting for the machines A Blog by Chris Baldassano

Parenting the last human generation

For most of human history, parents had a pretty good idea of the kind of world they were preparing their children for. Children would be trained to take over their parents’ business, or apprentice in a local trade, or aim for a high-status marriage. Even once children began to have more choice in their futures, it was easy to predict what kind of skills they would need to succeed: reading and handwriting, arithmetic, basic knowledge of science and history.

As technological progress has accelerated, this predictability is starting to break down. Companies like internet search engines didn’t even exist when most of Google’s 70,000 employees were born, and there is no way their parents could have guessed the kind of work they would eventually be doing. Some of the best-known musicians in the world construct songs using software, and don’t play any of the instruments that would have been offered to them in elementary school.

Given this uncertainty, what kinds of skills and interests should I encourage for my own children? Praticing handwriting, as I spent hours doing in school, would almost certainly be a waste. Same goes for mental math beyond small numbers or estimation, now that everyone carries a caculator. Given how computers are slowly seeping into every object in our house, programming seems like a safe answer, until you hear that researchers are currently building systems that can design themselves based on training examples.

Maybe in a couple decades, being creative and artistic will be more important than having STEM skills. Artificial intelligence is still pretty laughably bad at writing stories, and AI-based art tools still require a human at the helm. Even if that changes by the time my kids are starting their careers, there could still be a market for “artisan,” human-made art. Having good emotional intelligence also seems like it will always be helpful, in any world where we have to live with others and with ourselves.

As confusing as this is for me, it will be immensely harder for my children to be parents. I think of this current generation of toddlers as the last human generation - not because humanity is likely to wipe itself out within the next 20 years (though things are looking increasingly worrying on that front), but because I expect that by then humans and technology will start to become inseparable. Even now, being separated from our cell phones feels disconcerting - we have offloaded so much of our thinking, memory, and conversations to our devices that we feel smaller without them. By the time my grandchildren are teenagers, I expect that being denied access to technology will be absolutely crippling, to the point that they no longer have a coherent identity as a human alone.

When a software update could potentially make any skill obsolete, what skills should we cultivate?

Comments? Complaints? Contact me @ChrisBaldassano