NEXT: Voice

Many of us have had to learn how to change the way we speak when in the presence of an Alexa device. In order to make certain it (she?) understands me, I find I must change the way I speak when addressing Alexa, especially the manner in which I frame a question. Voice-interfaces with computers and artificial […]

-David Staley

June 15, 2020

Read the full article on the Columbus Underground site.

Futures Salon: “A Polymath University”

We start our discussion on university structure, flexibility, and capability here on July 7th with opening words from Dr. David Staley. If you would like to hear additional background for the following meeting notes, please check out his recent video through the Office of Research at The Ohio State University: The Future of the Research University: Creating the Infrastructure of Polymathy.

David shares with the group the book “The Ghost of the Executed Engineer” which reflects, in 1939, on the collapse of the Soviet Union and how the training and education of engineers. The author recounts the story of interacting with a ball-bearing engineer, where specialization developed to that specific focus. This sort of hyper-specialization still appears to be present in the modern university, where degrees are designed to bury into a pinpoint outcome or career goal.

Students in the 19th century at locations such as The Ohio State Unviersity all took the same courses, which then evolved into an early version of electives, which then again refined into the degrees and specialities developed in this elective system. General education programs stand as the current interpretation of that initial course layout of the 19th century. Harvard course catalog from the middle 1800s reflect this with the entire cohort taking Latin and Greek alongside a more modern language.

“The Polymath”, the book referenced in David’s video, helps to define the polymath away from those who are hyper-specialized. The polymath, argued there, is the norm, not the focused discipline outcome that modern education revolves around now. The polymath then is needed more than ever to solve the problems of a fast-moving, high-process, and ever-adapting world.

“The Neo-Generalist” provides another book reference to define the “portfolio person”, who has that large repertoire of abilities. This must fundamentally be different, in the university setting, than the liberal education curriculum’s often taught. These may attempt to provide a broad background of courses, but the courses themselves are built to progress the discipline. Degrees, tenure, and promotions are all rewarded on your disciplinary work, where it is exceptionally difficult for a polymath who works in and between disciplines to be recognized and fulfilled within the epistemological structure of the modern university.

The requirements of the polymath must be to work in, around, and between disciplines. The mindset, not the specialized skill-set, must be encouraged. How do we end up building a university that can promote the success of these students?

What are we actually education students for? Where are they going to go? What are they going to do? If an expert learns more and more about less and less, such that they end up knowing everything about nothing, what was the point?

Is it the role of universities to train and nurture polymaths? Or does this come earlier? Later? When is individual aptitude ready for broad and expansive thinking? General education currently seems to focus on acquiring large amounts of information, not translatable thoughts and strategies to solve problems through and between specialized disciplines. Specialized disciplines will always be necessary, but more focus must be placed on a polymath approach.

Is this the right time for this discussion, though? Social pressures and the ongoing pandemic have universities focused on the fall, keeping the lights on, teaching the courses already on the books. We also need to make sure that the push for the polymath does not lead to the dilettante. It must be critical to build the skillets for the sake of answering questions and solving problems and not for the superficial dilution of qualified skills.

Has anyone asked curriculum committees to develop majors and minors in polymathing? What does one do with this degree? Is the purpose of higher education to get a job? Then how would students be able to enter into diverse avocations without specialized skills?

With the technology and market advancement pushing away from these specialized majors, rapidly shifting economic climates will continue to require creative, problem-solving, and flexible individuals.

Thank you all for participating in this excellent conversation and we look forward to speaking again next month!

Salon: “A Polymath University”

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Tuesday, July 7 at 12:00 noon via Zoom. The topic will be “A Polymath University.”

I have been exploring the idea of nurturing an undergraduate “major” in polymathy, or as a generalist.  Here’s an article that gives some sense of what I mean: What if we gave students the opportunity not to specialize in a discipline but to develop their own “rigorous generalist” program?  Like Mansharamani says, students would “read the whole paper.”   How would a degree as a “rigorous generalist” be received in the workforce?  I would like to draw upon your ideas and judgement for thinking through how such a program might be implemented. 

Please contact for RSVP and Zoom information.

Futures Salon: “Conversations with Alexa”

We meet for our second digital lunch-hour format here on June 9th to discuss the future and implications of a voice command driven world. Dr. David Staley welcomes the group and begins moderating our discussion.

We open with the question: “Will Alexa or similar vocal processing and response technology have the same impact as the smart phone?”

Perhaps, but they have a different role in integration. While their functionality is limited, they do not currently act as stakeholders in our social lives. While smart phones became ubiquitous quickly, adaptation will be necessary to adjust to this “economy of automation.” This technology might be more one of an innovation rather than one of impact. It acts as another tool to access the library, but the smart phone is the library itself.

Will there be enough time for this voice assistant to become overshadowed by technology that bypasses this verbal requirement? Are tools which either through contact or through thought going to innovate quicker?

Thinking about how this tool is implemented, if you were to ask “who won the game last night?” what is the response? If we were to use a search engine, a list appears, where we can then sort the data. Voice recognition software must then determine which particular piece of information you were looking for. Then what happens to this “conversational web” strategy? What if a certain sports website was where your game news was coming from? Will they then be attempting to organize and highlight their knowledge to be what is reported back from these vocal commands?

Constructing knowledge ontologies to rival web browsers may be too daunting a task and less matched to the market which these voice recognition tools are developing towards. Instead of typing out a large transcript, these tools leverage enhanced vocal detection to start to become another, if not the primary way in which we interact with computers. Will the rate at which we speak become dominant to write novels? Texts? Research documents?

Another interesting thought is what do we actually consider to be dictation? Are tools which send voice recording more efficient then having to type or translate speech? Our culture is currently must more visual than the writers of antiquity who would use scribes to bring the words to page.

As AI becomes more sophisticated, will our quick “do this” or “answer me this” statements evolve into actual conversations? Will we be able to have deeper thinking questions with these tools? Will AI be able to future? Bounce ideas? Puzzle through questions? Become a member of the team?

Virtual assistants have recently shown the ability to set hair appointments, anticipate issues, create work around. Right now we see these tools and slicing and dicing information, allowing certain exceptions, but not being able to think independently and generate new knowledge.

To think about education, we teach students to develop libraries of knowledge, report that information, all within a rigorous testing system. Is this not what Alexa is doing? We often think intellectual power is in the ability to answer questions. But truly, this emphasis should be able to ask questions and critically think. How do you evaluate the source of the answers? What if these voice recognition tools preference a certain source of information? What are the implications of this preference and will we be able to still question the source of these answers?

Voice is an important identifier, as well. Companies are responding to the current utilization of facial recognition. Speech-to-text software becomes better and better at understanding language, and with that, improvements of the ability to detect and identify individuals. Will voice become a new method for bio-security and identification? Speaking in public may then become data which may play a role in a surveillance state, where voice can become uniquely linked to your person and your data.

What is the actual value that this tool brings? Is the voice recognition tool responsibility to solve problems only when your hands are occupied? “Verbalization is cacophony.” Are we preparing for an “eTelepathy” device where this is the more crude integration system. Will we be able to cross the vocal uncanny valley?

A few pieces of reading were shared if you are interesting reading or watching more about these topics:

Google Duplex: A.I. Assistant Calls Local Businesses To Make Appointments

Tracking people by their ‘gait signature’

How AI could become an extension of your mind

We appreciate everyone who participated and look forward to futuring with you next month!

Salon: “Conversations with Alexa”

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Tuesday, June 9 from 12:00-1:00 PM over Zoom.  The topic for this month is “Conversations with Alexa.”

Voice recognition interfaces like Alexa and Siri will be the chief interface with the digital.  What are the implications of this shift away form keyboards and written text, when voice and speech become the dominant modes of communication?   It is possible that smart speakers, powered by artificial intelligence, will one day allow us to ask more sophisticated questions than we do now? In such a scenario,  Alexa would develop a broader and more complex range of responses. Will we start to have real conversations? If conversation is defined as dialogue between two or more people where news and ideas are exchanged, might we start to have proper conversations with Alexa?

Please contact for RSVP and Zoom information.

NEXT: The Future of “Essential” Work(ers)

The COVID-19 pandemic has bifurcated the world of work. For some, their work can be performed while cocooned in private virtual worlds, carried out over Zoom. For others, their work must be performed in the physical, public and increasingly dangerous “real world.” The sight of cities devoid of people, of empty stadiums and deserted beaches has […]

-David Staley

May 11, 2020

Read the full article on the Columbus Underground site.

NEXT: Habits and Behaviors After Coronavirus

There remain many unanswered questions about life after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, chief among these being the still uncertain long-term health effects. Other questions include how long it will take for the economy to recover. There is historical evidence that suggests that those cities that quarantined early during the 1918 flu pandemic saw their economies bounce […]

-David Staley

April 15, 2020

Read the full article on the Columbus Underground site.

NEXT: Futurists Create Images of the Future, Not Predictions

Given the state of the world right now, it did not seem appropriate to discuss the future when the present is hanging so heavy over us. This month, I’d like to reflect on what it means to be a futurist, especially when presented with the opportunity to assess your own work. As a futurist, I am […]

-David Staley

March 16, 2020

Read the full article on the Columbus Underground site.

NEXT: Xenobots and Nano-zombies

Because animal breeding is centuries old, it makes sense to say that we have designed animals to meet our needs for a very long time. Animal husbandry has been responsible for producing animals that provide meat, eggs, fur, milk and other useful “products.” It is distasteful, perhaps, to use this language, but humans have for […]

-David Staley

February 17, 2020

Read the full article on the Columbus Underground site.

NEXT: The Future of Reading

Reading is a very big deal in the state of Ohio…until Grade Three. State legislation says that students are required to be reading at grade level by the third grade, else there are dire consequences for schools, teachers and students. But then, after that benchmark has been reached, reading seems to disappear from everyone’s attention. There might […]

-David Staley

January 14, 2020

Read the full article on the Columbus Underground site.