Cindy Wagner, the future-savvy editor at The Futurist magazine is running a new feature, Disappearing Futures: What Won’t Be Around in 2030? They are looking for around 300 words, a good length for crowdsourced submissions. Email Cindy if you’d like to send in your own. I sent a shorter version of the piece below, considering three things I expect to disappear (or head greatly in that direction) over this timeframe: Endangered Languages, Economic Immigration Barriers, and Mass Fundamentalist Religious Intolerance. Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments, thanks.
By 2020, the ubiquity and affordability of wearable smartphones (Google glass, wristphones, etc), and the power of the conversational interface (Google Now, etc.) will give enterprising youth everywhere access to “teacherless education,” lifelong learning by talking to their peers and machines. The “killer app” of teacherless education will be learning a developed nations language while learning their own, increasingly from birth. Their wearable will “listen in” as they learn their native language, and deliver the same words in the foreign language, along with images, learning aids, and games that reinforce and test their proficiency, and post their language skill level on global recruiting, collaboration, and microwork networks (LinkedIn, oDesk, etc.). Imagine a Rosetta Stone that’s free, wearable, conversational, and 24/7, and you’re foreseeing what I call Global English. Want to help it emerge faster? Call me, I’ve got a few ideas.
As this linguistic convergence accelerates, perhaps one fourth of the ~6,000 languages spoken today, mostly the 3,000 or so endangered languages, may disappear by 2030, and other less-spoken ethnic languages will continue to lose mindshare, as developed nations languages with the most open cultures increasingly take their place. While we mourn the loss of endangered languages and the minds that speak them, what matters most is making sure their cultural history, values, and semantic complexity are captured in the languages we continue to speak. We’ll also see many more scientific, technical, business, social, and artistic “languages” (knowledge bases) increasingly taught from birth with these amazing learning systems.
English, the global language of business today (and much easier to learn than Chinese, it’s closest competitor), should benefit most, bringing English-speaking nations as many as 1 billion new “virtual immigrants” by 2030, growing the total English-language workforce on the order of 50% in two decades, a rate of growth we haven’t seen since Industrial Revolution-era immigration. In the high-bandwidth 2020’s, many economic barriers to participating in the global economy will disappear. Eager underemployed youth anywhere, speaking the same language and increasingly understanding the same global culture, will be able to work with large and small companies everywhere, vastly accelerating global innovation and entrepreneurship in the 2030′s and beyond. That will be an amazing time.
While most youth and adults will likely use machine translation for any contact with outside cultures (certainly the most convenient option), the “death of language learning” predicted by some futurists by the 2030′s simply won’t occur. Indeed, enterprising companies like Open English are accelerating English-language learning today with $1000, yearlong, four-person online classes. Imagine what will happen when this price drops to free, the learning is 24/7, and the AI behind it gets good. Consider further how the parents who push their children to learn a leading foreign language (or two) will give those children both measurably greater economic opportunities and I believe, provably greater collaborative and cognitive fluencies, since learning a foreign language and getting immersion experiences in that culture, even digitally, allows you to better think in, work with, and understand that culture. Although there are as yet no good measures for the semantic size of vocabularies in our languages, (a topic we care about, unlike R.L.G.’s conclusion in the post I’ve linked to) it is well known that leading languages have by far the largest semantic vocabularies by comparison to languages spoken by just a few hundred thousand people. English is often claimed to have a special place in this regard, having absorbed so many words and concepts from other cultures, and with deep technical vocabularies, that some estimate that it has over 1 million words now. Of all the knowledge bases one could easily learn at birth, choice of language(s) seems key. Linguists and cognitive psychologists have argued for decades that language influences thought. What we can all agree on is that semantic complexity influences thought, and that some languages have much more of it than others. It is also true that learning just a tiny percentage (perhaps 2%?) of the words in most languages can give you basic fluency in that language, and we can expect to see a lot more of this kind of polyglot learning of languages in the future.
One day, when we hit the tech singularity (which I’m guessing will be in the 2060′s, and it’s just a guess because acceleration studies doesn’t exist yet as a funded field, we have some waking up still to do) I imagine the AIs will create, and teach us all, a new global language that is a semantic mashup of all the best of our global cultures, even more than our mongrel English, and with a structure that is grammatically easier and phonetically far more efficient (perhaps by using all 100 phonemes we use across all cultures, instead of just the 20 or so in a typical language) than anything that exists today. An Esperanto for the late 21st century. But until that time arrives, what seems obvious to me is that English, the most widely taught foreign language today, will continue to win as the collaboration language of choice in coming decades, just as cities will continue to win over rural areas. And those who speak in any language will have a much richer ability to interact with all others who use that language.
Now for perhaps the most controversial prediction. As long as global science, technology, free trade, and wealth continue to accelerate, as I expect they will, and our resilience to catastrophes of all types continues to grow, all the major religions and ideologies will grow more ecumenical and secular as well. Mass fundamentalist religious intolerance, still a serious issue today (Islamists of the West, Hindus of Dalits, Christians of gays, etc.) will be decimated in the ambiently intelligent, hyperconnected world of 2030. Specifically, fundamentalist religious movements ability to use economic or other catastrophes to roll back social reforms at national levels, as we saw in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 (there were many reasons for the revolution but reactionary mass religious fundamentalism was a key driver, as I’ve written before), will have disappeared for good, in any nation. Political and religious fundamentalist backlashes within subcultures will always be with us, but we can expect (and hope) they’ll be far more circumscribed, weak, and short-lived in a world of youth who see those views as extremist, arrogant, and counterproductive. Amen!