Google the term “disruption” and you will find many results. It seems that everyone is trying to attach their product, service or training to this buzz word, often inappropriately. What will be the next truly disruptive innovation for the learning profession? Let’s start with a few definitions so we’re all speaking the same language.
What Is “Disruptive Innovation?”
Futurist Eric Haseltine says any one of four conditions can usher in a disruptive innovation:
- The invention of a new instrument
- The collision of radically diverse disciplines
- A radical idea
- A realization that we humans are not as important as we think
Examples of Past Disruptions
In the early 1600s, a spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey, invented the telescope (at least in the Western world.) The original purpose of the telescope was to see distant objects on land. When astronomer Galileo Galilei pointed it to the sky, he found the perfect storm of disruption:
- A new instrument (telescope)
- Collision of radically diverse disciplines (optics and astronomy)
- A radical idea (Earth revolves around the Sun)
- A realization that we humans are not as important as we think (Earth was no longer the center of the universe)
More recently, the emergence of a brand-new scientific discipline, the neurosciences, emerged from a similar cocktail of disruptive events:
- A new instrument (Functional Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other technologies)
- Collision of radically diverse disciplines (psychology, biology, physics, chemistry)
- A radical idea (One day we’ll be able to map and “read” the brain)
- A realization that we humans are not as important as we think (Animal brains are far more like ours than previously supposed)
Predicting the Next Disruptions
Looking back over centuries, or even decades, it is usually easy to see disruptive innovations in the making, but predicting the future can be tricky. For example, I can remember a time when many learning professionals predicted that Second Life would become the norm for immersive training delivery. Prediction is more than an interesting pastime, however. It’s a key survival skill and the human brain is exceptionally good at it. So why not use some of that predictive power to gaze a few years in the future and see what is coming for the learning professional? In my presentation at ATD’s International Conference and Expo (ICE) I focus on three major innovations: Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Intelligence. Each one has the potential to truly disrupt the way we design and deliver training and education.
Virtual Reality is Already Changing the Way We Learn About the World
Virtual reality (VR) is a combination of computer-generated graphics, real-world video and images, and sounds that create the illusion of a three-dimensional 360-degree space that the user can see, hear, touch, and sometimes even smell. Today, the experience is delivered via a special, somewhat clunky, headset. Once employed only to make digital games more engaging, VR is starting to gain traction in the learning space. Imagine a surgeon practicing a procedure on a realistic human patient, learning from every mistake and hesitation, until she can perform it perfectly. No one is put at risk while the young doctor works to become proficient. The patient, the operating room, the other doctors, and even the blood are all virtual; but the learning experience is real. You don’t have to imagine this future; it’s here today. At least one VR company is already selling virtual operating room simulations to medical schools, reducing the time and cost of preparing a new surgeon for possible life versus death performance. Google gives K-12 teachers the opportunity to take their class on a virtual “expedition” to “visit” just about anywhere on Earth. Other companies provide virtual trips back in time to experience educational sites like ancient Rome or speeches such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. The technology is already in place and it is getting more affordable all the time. How much longer before your company asks you to build an immersive learning experience for the organization?
Artificial Intelligence is Closer Than You Think
Once found only in science fiction, artificial intelligence (AI) is infiltrating our daily lives at an astonishing pace. You can live in a “smart” house, where you talk to your virtual assistant, go to work in a smart car, and download apps to make your smartphone even smarter. AI has also begun to infiltrate education and learning. In 2016, a Georgia Tech professor programmed an AI teaching assistant to answer student questions, remind them when assignments were due, and grade their papers. Students communicated with “Jill Watson” via email and never suspected that she was artificial. Like many graduate teaching assistants, Jill became a better teacher and coach as the semester went along, learning from each interaction with the students under her tutelage. Another program, built by a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, grades college essays for grammar and pertinence to the question. While there is still a lot of room for debate about the efficacy of these purported intelligent programs, there isn’t much debate about if AI will become part of the education experience, just when.
Augmented Intelligence Has the Potential to Change What It Means to Be Human
Although the prospect of training new employees with a smart robot seems exciting (or possibly terrifying, depending on your perspective), there is an even more powerful emerging technology on the horizon. Augmented intelligence, the “other” AI that very few are talking about, is the marriage of a computer to a human brain using a direct interface. In augmented intelligence, you don’t have to use a mouse or touch a screen to access the memory and processing power of a computer; you simply think about what you need, and the computer responds. Once perfected, the interface will be so seamless that you may not even recognize a dividing line between your experience of “me” and your experience of “my computer.” Today, brain-computer interfaces are being tested primarily to assist people with disabilities, giving them more control over their own body or making it easier for them to use the internet and communicate with others. Once perfected, these same interfaces could greatly accelerate human processing power, expand our available memory, and link us to other minds around the world.
We Will Always Need to Learn
No matter how well these amazing technologies expand our minds, human beings will still need to learn to compete and thrive in the brave new world that is on the horizon. That means there will always be a learning profession, although it will continue to evolve, along with our learning audience and the technology we use to assist them. It is up to us to become as informed and practiced as possible so we can leverage the tremendous potential for good that each of these technologies represents.