How the Technological Singularity will Impact the World (according to seventh graders)
When I was a teacher, at the end of the school year, I would try to leave a day or two to teach about miscellaneous topics the students expressed interest in — each year, this included technology. So, I taught a brief lesson (you can find more details about the lesson at the end of this post) about emerging technologies, and about the futurist theory that “the technological singularity is near.”
The technological singularity (“the singularity”) is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature.
It is a moment we can’t see past: since the capabilities of such an intelligence could be hard for an ordinary human to comprehend, the singularity is often seen as an occurrence (akin to a gravitational singularity) beyond which the future course of human history is unpredictable or even unfathomable.
First, I gave the students a working definition for the singularity (see above). Next, I had the students consider what kinds of technologies might emerge in their lifetimes. Then, I had them consider how the post-singularity world might look, through the four major lenses for understanding Social Studies, which we had been studying all year: political systems, culture, geography, and economics. I felt doing this lesson allowed me to cover a topic students wanted to learn about, while giving students a chance to think creatively, and exercise their philosophical thinking skills.
My students’ imaginative visions of our future depict a world that is sometimes rosy and exciting, and other times dystopian and disconcerting. They came up with some intriguing, terrifying, and amazing ideas about how political systems, culture, geography, and economics might be impacted — some of their predictions might blow your mind.
How the Technological Singularity might impact and change Political Systems
Leadership and Control
- People might have ‘chips’ in them to be controlled or influenced
- Governments could pass laws and people could be literally forced into following it
- Government may have more power to control everything; this might be particularly scary if there were a dictatorship
- It may become easier to oppress people
- You may not have to physically go somewhere to vote; increased participation in the government from citizens through instant voting
- New leaders might chosen based on their technological savvy or their artificially enhanced intelligence
- Governments might be better at making the best decisions for people (since they are more intelligent)
- People might have their intelligence enhanced, which might make them better able to participate in the political system
- At any given time, government might know everything about you (including wants, dislikes, weaknesses, motives, search history)
- Governments might have more insight into what people want, which would make them more effective
- Government might have more insight into what people “want to hear,” which would make people more easily manipulated
- Government might have DNA data, which could be used or abused
Law and Order
- Increased ability to protect citizens
- More widespread, large-scale data collection may prevent crime
- People could use “photographic memory” capability to establish crime & punishment (use it as evidence)
- Bans on some technologies
- More hacking-based attacks, including in small scale crimes, and hackers may have ability to do more harm/damage
- Technological warfare already a norm, but will increase
How the Technological Singularity might impact and change Cultures
- We might be able to talk to hundreds of people without even moving
- We might be able to talk to multiple people simultaneously
- Hacking might allow someone to win an argument or dispute
- Significant increase in worldwide cultural diffusion
- Information may be so readily available that there is less need to know things
Concepts of Entertainment
- Live virtual reality games more available and more realistic
- We might be able to “install” things into our brains
- Athletics & Sports might become less important as body enhancements increase; alternatively, technological advances could actually make sports/physical activity better; body enhancement might determine athletic success (testing for enhancements might become the new drug testing)
- People may become lazier and less fit
- We may have “live” virtual dolls
- 3D technology may give us the ability to make our imagination “real”
- Robot fights
Beliefs and Values
- Computer chip in brain might modify values/beliefs
- Society may become less safe as it becomes easier to be stalked or spied on
- There may be ethical concerns (or dangers) re: A.I.
- Will we be able to “buy” a cloned/genetically created person? The concept of a family may change
- Teachers’ roles would change so that their role would be to teach students how to think instead of delivering information
- People may have more or less social awareness
- There may be less need to master multiple languages
- Normal language will evolve significantly to incorporate technological terms
- Less exchange of communicable disease because of less human contact
- Changing the way reproduction works due to technological advancements
- Human population might change
- Ability to better communicate with animals
- 3D printing may allow for all resources needed to be available readily
- A person wearing or being integrated with more technology or body modifications might be perceived as more attractive
- There might be an inability to distinguish between Artificial Intelligence and an Enhanced Human
- We might be able to modify metabolism to account for extreme laziness
- The ability to feign eternal youth
- Possible use of technology to enhance physical body
How the Technological Singularity might impact Geography and Human Settlement Patterns
Human Settlement Patterns
- Conflicts about locations
- Virtual living: people could “create” their own virtual world and/or fight over others’
- Ability to mentally modify your levels of comfort and safety
- Living on mountains due to pollution problems
- More developing of undeveloped parts of the world
- Colonizing space
- WiFi in space!
- Traveling further than we’ve traveled before in space
- Where you live may not be as important, since everyone everywhere is connected
- No need to live anywhere particular; Descartes’s “Brain in a Vat” may become a reality (people live somewhere but interact entirely online)
How the Technological Singularity might impact Economics
Trade and Wealth
- More technology or technological ability could become a source of wealth
- Goods may be transported more easily in the future; drone deliveries?
- Teleportation or something like it: instant mail or transportation for goods such as 3D printing of purchases
- Tech companies could become complete marketplace for all trade
- Money may become less important, because people already have or can get everything you need, and something else will become the new “source” or symbol of wealth (in the way that land became less important and money increased in importance after the Middle Ages)
- Technology could automatically create things we need especially as 3D printing is able to create protein compounds
- The ability to regenerate natural resources and “fix” Earth
- Human beings may not ‘need’ to work anymore; robots can take over most tasks. As human roles in society can change, humans can find a new purpose for themselves as a society
- If we bioengineer the ‘perfect’ human brain, it might change the concept of economic competition — possibly, the rich will get increasingly rich (due to higher access to new technologies) and the poor may become poorer; OR, there may be a fundamental societal shift and everyone could become ‘equal’ due to having access to certain technologies, and having access to all necessary resources
- Artificial Intelligences could become ‘slaves’ or automatons for humanity, which would fundamentally change the economic structure of society
Aren’t seventh graders smart?
Details on the “Singularity Lesson Plan”
Students will be able to explore how technological advances (expected in the next 50 years) might impact political systems, cultures, geography (and human settlement patterns), and economics.
- Learn about the technological singularity theory and its expected outcomes.
- Make predictions about the future of technology.
- Using our understanding of the singularity, apply our knowledge of principles of political systems, principles of cultures, principles of geography, and principles of economics to making predictions about how (1) political systems may work, (2) cultures may change, (3) geography and human settlement patterns may change, and (3) economics may be impacted in the future.
Agenda Item 1: Learn about the technological singularity theory and its expected outcomes
First, start by giving them an operational definition for “the singularity.” Then, watch a brief video.
Then, briefly check for understanding of the content (and even show another short video clip if time permits).
Agenda Item 2: React to the idea
After students get a chance to hear about and imagine new technologies they can expect in their lifetimes, they tend to be really excited / anxious / chatty — so put that to use. They can turn to a neighbor or group and try and brainstorm all the new technologies they might expect. Here’s the prompt I used:
Get creative. What technologies do you imagine might emerge in your lifetime?
Turn to a neighbor and try and come up with the most advanced, amazing technology ideas you think might show up in the next fifty years! (Hint: Consider technologies that are already being made!)
Agenda Item 3: Apply them to the four domains of Social Studies (the good part)
Now, the students apply what they have learned to imagining how these expected technological changes might change how (1) political systems work, (2) cultures may change, (3) geography and human settlement patterns may change, and (3) economics may be impacted.
The 4 Domains for Understanding Social Studies
The course content I taught was equal parts World History and World Cultures — but the content is meant to be treated as a backdrop for training students to think using the four “domains” of Social Studies: (1) Principles of Political Systems, (2) Principles of Culture, (3) Principles of Geography, and (4) Principles of Economics. As such, the emphasis is on considering how the four domains influence various events in history and elements of culture. Anyway, these four domains can be applied to understanding pretty much anything. So whatever I teach could theoretically be tied back to these domains, which would allow the students to get practice applying them.
In classes with enough time, all students got to brainstorm ideas for how these changes impacted all of the domains. We consolidated all the best answers into some slides (which you read above).
Alternative approach: Due to time constraints in one class (I think we had a field trip or something that day, resulting in both a modified schedule, and a half-absent class — evidenced below), I broke the class into four groups and assigned each group one of the domains. Then, one group at a time came to the back board in the classroom to teach the rest of their classmates about their domain and how technology could impact it.
Overall, the lesson worked has been awesome every time I’ve used it. The students are always excited and engaged in it, and walk away having learned something new. They get to finish the school year by practicing applying all of the major domains they had been practicing thinking about all year long, to a topic that wouldn’t typically be covered in seventh grade World Studies. And most importantly, framing the lesson in a way that lets students use their imaginations while thinking critically about something different gives them practice exercising their philosophical thinking skills. I believe giving students the chance to develop their critical thinking skills is central to the role of Social Studies teacher. As a side note to my teacher friends: this model for teaching interesting miscellaneous topics can be used for other subjects too.