What Will Disappear by 2030? An Intro to Global English

Cindy Wagner, the future-savvy editor at The Futurist magazine is running a new feature, Disappearing Futures: What Won’t Be Around in 2030? Here are three things I proposed will greatly or entirely disappear over this timeframe: Endangered Languages, Economic Immigration Barriers, and Mass Fundamentalist Religious Intolerance. In the process I introduce an imminent planetary development that I’m particularly excited about: Global English. Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments, thanks.

The leading language learning software on the planet. Waiting to be knocked off its pedestal by something entirely free and crowdsourced, like Wikipedia.

The leading language learning software on the planet. Soon to be disrupted by crowdlearning platforms like Duolingo, Memrise, etc.

True Wearable wristphone concept, 2007. Someone make this now. Please.

Wearable wristphone concept, 2007. Coming circa 2015.

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 conversation, both with remote peers and with the web itself. For kids in developing nations, 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 of choice, along with images, learning aids, and games that test proficiency. They can of course let their system post their developed world language skill level on global networking, recruiting, and microwork platforms (LinkedIn, oDesk, etc.), opening themselves up to new collaboration opportunities.

Imagine a Rosetta Stone that’s 24/7, free, wearable, conversational, and driven by crowdlearning, and you’re seeing what I call Global English. Check out Duolingo, a new crowdlearning platform for language learning and translation, and Memrise, a new platform for learning anything by crowdsourced memnonics, spaced repetition, and adaptive testing, and you’ll see two exciting examples of how the wearable web, learning science, and millions of connected people will bring us Global English in just a few more years.

Of the roughly 6,000 languages spoken today, perhaps 4,000 of the endangered languages will no longer be spoken by children in 2030 (making them “moribund”), and perhaps 90% of the remaining 2,000 will have lost users as well, as the languages of developed nations 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 ensuring that 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 systems, like coding) increasingly taught from birth with these amazing learning systems.

Good book on the underrecognized value of merit-driven immigration to economic and cultural wealth. It has been and always will be so.

A mix of merit-based and humanitarian immigration has always been a key driver of economic and cultural wealth. Politicos may not want it, but the internet will accelerate global virtual immigration.

English, the global language of business today, and a language much easier to learn than Chinese, it’s closest competitor, will definitely benefit most, with Global English platforms bringing English-speaking nations as many as 1 billion new “virtual immigrants” by 2030. Though most of these will still be kids under 18 in 2030, the wearable web and Global English may grow the total potential English-language workforce on the order of 30-50% in two decades, a growth rate we haven’t seen since Industrial Revolution-era immigration to the US and UK. At the same time, 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 use wearable machine translation for any contact with outside cultures, such mediated systems will never be as fast or fluid as knowing the foreign language itself, and the “death of language learning” predicted by some futurists by the 2030’s won’t occur. Instead we’ll see growth in foreign language learning at some threshold of marginal opportunity and native speaker number (perhaps 5o million?), and rapid growth in a handful of the most influential global languages, and in particular, English. Companies like Open English are already using the web to accelerate English-language learning today with $1000, yearlong, four-person online classes with proficiency guarantees. Imagine what will happen when this price drops to free, as with Duolingo and Memrise, the learning is 24/7, and the AI and crowdlearning tools get really good.

A key motivation to consider is 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.

CoexistIsraelPalestineNow 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, will have disappeared for good, in any nation.  Consider the Iranian Revolution in 1979, where mass religious fundamentalism, reacting to the “catastrophes” of corrupt governance and reckless modernization, rolled back personal freedoms and social development perhaps a century or so.

In the wearable web world, political activism will surely be accelerated, but it will also be far more transparent and accountable to public sentiment. Tolerance for both mass and individual intolerance and extremism will go out the window, as the costs of extreme and intolerant views and behaviors will be delivered not only to our televisions, as occurred in the Vietnam War in 1960’s US, but to our bodies, everywhere and continously. 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. We can predict that as long as sci-tech accelerations continue, Global Gen Z youth, interacting socially with an intimacy and concurrency that we can only dream of today, will overwhelmingly see mass fundamentalist intolerance as extremist, arrogant, and counterproductive.

Still don’t believe the third prediction? Read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2012, for a masterful expose of this global megatrend.  Amen!

About the Author: John M. Smart is a technology foresight scholar, educator, speaker, and consultant. President, Acceleration Studies Foundation. Blog: http://EverSmarterWorld.com

The Race to Inner Space: Our Ever Faster, Smaller, Smarter, and Wealthier Future

Seeing, Guiding, and Benefiting from Accelerating Physical and Informational Change

Humanity’s advances to date have been accompanied by great leaps in the density, diversity, and virtuality of our societies, and in the miniaturization and efficiency of our technologies. Among these and other variables determining social progress, two stand out as particularly special. The more our intelligence gains access to “Inner Space,” both to the domain of very small size scales, or Physical Inner Space”, and to the domain of very powerful brain-based and computer-based simulations, or Virtual Inner Space”, the faster we learn to generate major new economic, social, and adaptation benefits for civilization. This “Race to Inner Space” may turn out to be the dominant developmental trend for our species.

The Cosmic Calendar: 13.7 Billion Years of Universal History Depicted Over A Cosmic “Year”. Lovely creative commons image by Wikipedia author Eric Fisk.

As Carl Sagan famously argued in the Cosmic Calendar metaphor of Big History, life on Earth has been engaged in a continual acceleration of structural and functional complexity emergence since its birth 3.8 billion years ago. At the same time, each newly emergent complex system, from stars to cities, from prokaryotes to computers, uses vastly smaller quantities universal space, time, energy, and matter or STEM, per novel information production, computation, or physical transformation, than the system that came before it. We may call this phenomenon STEM efficiency and density increase, or STEM compression, and we can see and measure it in spatial, temporal, energetic, and material terms. Over time, the leading edge systems use ever less of the resources of “Outer Space” to generate ever more novelty, intelligence, and capability in “Inner Space”, an exciting and apparently universal process. If this astonishing trend continues, our and other universal civilizations may eventually reach black hole level computational efficiency and density and transcend our universe, a topic I’ve speculated on in the Transcension hypothesis.

Certainly humanity’s ability to think, act, and shape our world has grown ever faster, more powerful, and more novel since Australopithecus garhi, perhaps our earliest tool-using ancestors, fashioned the first stone tools more than 2.6 million years ago. We are also much more densely associated in our cities, and engaged in far more virtual activity than our ancestors. Since the advent of currency circa 5,000 years ago, human wealth production has also become an increasingly instantaneous and virtual economic process, today involving trillions of dollars in daily foreign exchange and billions in program trading. Though modern economies experience occasional recessions, these grow rapidly shorter with time, and even the worst now last less than one decade, just one seventh the typical human lifespan. Surprisingly, these periodic slowdowns are not even visible on long timescales. The curve to the left, charting GDP per capita in Western Europe from 1000-1999 AD, with data compiled by economist Angus Maddison, shows that global wealth production now grows almost instantaneously fast over the span of a century. Reporting on this in The Economist in 1999, the authors said it “looks less like an inevitable process and more like a single, astonishing event.” In my opinion, this acceleration, just one of several special Inner Space trends in human civilization, clearly does look like it might be an inevitable process, and it is precisely this parochial attitude, this failure of vision and lack of willingness to ask unpopular questions about value creation and technological change, that keeps today’s media from seeing and reporting on accelerating complexity development, and that keeps today’s economic theory ignorant of the inevitable accelerating benefits that come from our investments and actions in Inner Space.

At the same time, as Kevin Kelly notes in What Technology Wants, 2011, the redundancy of our technology and its distributed knowledge systems protects this accelerating planetary process of wealth and knowledge creation better than ever before. While individual nations, regions, companies, and individuals regularly suffer slowdowns and catastrophes, our global system, like an organism with a developing brain and immune system, rebounds from damage faster, stronger and better the more complex it gets. The story of our accelerating resiliency to complexity disruption, however, is even more ignored, ridiculed, and unaccepted today than the story of accelerating change. We need to fix this state of affairs. The longer we ignore planetary processes of collective intelligence and immunity development, the longer our political, economic, technological, and social policies remain unenlightened, ineffective, and focused on the wrong goals. The longer we wait to study these processes with the rigor they deserve, the longer we remain burdened with preventable suffering, living in the flatlands below the knee of the next growth curve of capacity building, intelligence advancement, and wealth creation.

I believe that humanity’s collective intelligence, wealth, and resilience have accelerated for so long because, via STEM compression, we have continually learned how to move our intelligence into ever smaller domains of nanotechnology, or Physical Inner Space, thus escaping resource limits, while at the same time, developing ever smarter simulations, or Virtual Inner Space, so we can “think more” and “act less” in the search for new capabilities and wealth-creating innovations. Today, a growing proportion of our leading innovations happen either at very small scales in physical, chemical, or biotechnological processes, or inside computers and their networks and software. It is only these special systems that use less and less physical resources to produce more and more social value, a process that the futurist Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization,” or doing more and more physical transformation (“acting”) and simulation (“thinking”) with less and less space, time, energy, and matter, or STEM. In a very real sense, we are “moving the world” to Inner Space at an accelerating pace, as depicted in the fullerene (“buckyball”) molecule enclosing Earth in the pretty picture to the right by nanoscientist Chris Ewels.

In humanity’s great race to Inner Space, we are on the edge of major new breakthroughs in nanotechnology engineering, and of the web becoming a metaverse, the most intelligent and valuable natural environment on the planet. We may soon see such infotech and machine intelligence advances as a conversational interface (a web that understands us when we talk to it), digital twins (aka “smart agents”, semi-intelligent avatars that can model and represent us), a valuecosm (quantified maps of all our values and goals), and statistical measures of our individual and social progress. These seem likely to be very empowering and democratizing innovations.

These same nanotechnologies and information technologies offer all the leading solutions to today’s greatest global challenges, including cheap energy and CO2 reduction (nanosolar, which doubles global installed base every two years, and halves its cost every ten years, engineered algal biofuels, which for some applications are now the same cost as oil, fuel cells, etc), food (a genetic green revolution), water (nanodesalination, which doubles global installed base every six years, and halves its cost every nine years), reducing poverty, overpopulation, and slums (smart internet, internet TV, online education, science and technology education, entrepreneurship, women’s and civil rights, green cities), reducing crime and terrorism (global transparency and sousveillance) and bioterrorism (immune system aids like DRACO), and building trustable machine intelligences and robots (we may evolve our machines to be trustable, just as we have bred domestic animals to be trustable, without “designing” them). Even human death is in the process of being challenged. For those who die today, one path to further life may be chemical brain preservation at death, followed later by advanced and inexpensive nano and information technology. Every major human problem we see today has one or more Inner Space technical solutions on the horizon.

How do we help more of our leading countries, institutions, corporations, and entrepreneurs to understand and benefit from our civilization’s apparently inevitable race to Inner Space? How do we get this realization to become part of the story of Big History, told to all curious children who seek to understand the universe? As the pace of life speeds up, many people and organizations react with fear and fundamentalism to accelerating change. How do we help them instead to embrace the most humanizing technologies, and to develop a continual learning and evidence-based culture? For how much longer will our political and corporate leaders continue to severely underfund global nanotech? The world’s governments spend just $10B/yr annually on nanotech R&D funding, with the US spending just $2.2B annually, primarily via the National Nanotechnology Initiative. This is just 0.3% (0.003) of our $740B defense budget in 2010. Just 0.06% (0.0006) of our $3.5T in federal spending. Since 2011, China now spends more on nanotech R&D than the US, with just one fifth our GDP. This positions them to start far more of the nanotech jobs of the future. We should be competing much more on that front.

We also seriously underfund global infotech. The US spends almost all of its unclassified investments in infotech R&D through the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. As of 2007, NITRD spending was just $3B/year. You can bet it hasn’t gone up since then, given our recent economic woes. How long until we change our priorities? How many great nano and infotech solutions to our present global problems are we presently ignoring, instead wasting most of our precious time, intelligence, and energy on far slower, cruder, and less inefficient “Outer Space” technologies and strategies? I suspect every nation on Earth, and many companies, spend a good deal less on nanotechnology and information technology education, research, development, strategy, and entrepreneurship than they should, given the continually accelerating returns delivered by these special technologies. I know that nations and companies rarely have good forecasts of accelerating returns in Inner Space to guide their policy, or to time their product development strategy, because I’ve been a scholar this field for ten years now. The world, by and large, is not yet awake to this trend. We are all running a race, but most of us are not yet conscious of it. That needs to change.

Fortunately, some nations, regions, and companies do a much better job promoting technological progress than others. Some prioritize science and technology policy, education, research and development, innovation, and foresight. Some encourage competitions and give scholarships and hiring priority to the most technically proficient, innovative, and entrepreneurial. But few nations give sufficient access to credit and other startup resources for their best technology entrepreneurs, or create fair competition environments to allow both large and small businesses to create new technology products and services. As citizens, we often don’t measure and rank our local, state, and national politicians for their science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship credentials, and reward them with our votes. As consumers, we don’t always look for, rate, and buy the smartest and most resource-efficient products and services, as soon as they become available. I believe the best way to improve the world is to recognize where it is going, to Inner Space, and to see the powerful role that each of us can play in building a much faster, smaller, smarter, and wealthier future for all of us.

[This is the abstract of a talk I will give at Global Future 2045 in Moscow, February 2012, to a community of Big History scholars, entrepreneurs, futurists, and transhumanists. Hope to see you there.]

Thoughts? Disagreements? Corrections? Let me know, thanks! [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]

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