Guest Post: Education in the Age of Sentient Tools

Over the next ten years, significant advances in technology along with a shifting economic and cultural landscape will bring about a new age of intelligent tools that are aware, can make sense of their surroundings, and at the same time are socially aware of the people who are interacting with them. These sentient tools are the next step in the development of computational systems. They are essentially what lies just over the horizon; the thing that comes after the “the next big thing.”

For many years now we’ve been envisioning and discussing the societal, cultural and educational impacts of a whole host of technologies. Just pick up any tech magazine or popular technology book and see people exploring smart cities and environments, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence (AI), big data and data mining, and an interconnected system in the Internet of Things (IoT). But the key to disruption or even more important not being disrupted is to think about what comes after these current hot topics.  Sentient tools aggregates all of these advances into a vison for the future that builds from the foundation of the last 50 years in computation, sensing and communications technologies.

How Can a Machine Be Aware?

The "awareness" of these sentient tools is not yet comparable to a human level of consciousness. This is not meant to be a philosophical exploration of what human consciousness may be and what are the implications if we can replicate it. These tools are simply tools. They are not meant to mimic, mirror or replace humans. This awareness will be quite simple in the beginning, including physical, cultural, linguistic and context awareness. Their design and development will focus on specific physical and virtual tasks that may be vastly more complex than tasks today but are not meant to replace humans. Conversely, these tools will be designed to work alongside the human labor force.

However, we can not under-estimate the global impact these tools will have on the labor market. The rise of sentient tools will have a significant impact on the global work force and education, leaving practically no industry unaffected.

Sentience Defined

Sentience is defined as the ability to perceive the world that surrounds us and to derive feeling or meaning from those experiences. For a machine or tool, being able to derive meaning infers that the tool is capable of some level of perception, processing and thinking.

As we define these tools, sentience is both the ability to sense the world around the tool but also to process, understand, make meaning and communicate with that world. To be able to effectively interact with that world, the tool needs to be socially aware of the person it is working with. It must understand the person as an individual so that it can more effectively communicate.

This understanding of the human working alongside the tool is central to the world-changing power of this technology. Imagine a tool that understands you as an individual. Knows if you are an introvert or an extrovert. Imagine a tool that knows if you are tired, energized, at the peak of your performance or simply need a break. In this vision for the future the tools are designed to not only optimize for efficiency and speed but also to make their human operators successful. How we define this success will be an important part of their development and illustrates why we must explore not only the implications on the labor force but the new requirements it will place on education.

A Tool is Just a Tool

A tool is anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose, typically a device held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function. People have been using tools for millions of years, but in the 20th century, the definition of tools expanded to include both physical and digital tools. The one defining element is that it is used, either directly or indirectly by an operator, to accomplish a task and extend the power of the user.

By this definition a sentient tool is a tool that can think, is aware of its surroundings and also aware of the person that is using it. The tool is socially aware. Meaning that the tool understands its environment, can make sense of it and can communicate with the person using it.

This is an essential component to the idea of sentient tools. The tool may have some autonomy for thought processing and movement but it is designed to accomplish a specific task and to work with humans. These tools can be both physical and virtual.

What Makes Up a Sentient Tool?

A sentient tool is made up of four specific parts:

•      Situational Awareness: Sensing the outside world via local and networked sensors as well as data and expertise sharing;

•      Intelligence: Processing, understanding, learning, making sense of the world;

•      Social Awareness: Understanding who it is working with; 

•      Communication: The ability to communicate with humans via multimodal interactions like voice, visuals, audio or haptics.

In a research paper for the innovation and growth firm Frost and Sullivan, I explained that these sentient tools may have specific abilities that are greater than human abilities (e.g. mathematical computation, physical strength, etc.) but in the beginning they will not be designed to replace human labor completely. They will simply be tools that are designed for a specific task to be completed with humans.

Implications on the Labor Force

However, these advances in technology will have a massive effect on the job market, creating enormous destabilization and job loss. Tech analyst and commentator Rob Enderle expanded on the effects in an article for “Initially these tools aren’t specifically designed to replace humans, but to supplement them. However, they will quickly evolve to replace people who perform similar functions. For instance, paralegals, research associates, clerks, junior accountants, analysts, relief drivers, warehouse workers, delivery people and a cross section of the remaining human assembly work.”

New Approach to Education Needed

With this vision now in place for the coming age of sentient tools, we now must ask ourselves, are we training and educating the next generation of workers to act and interact with tools that are aware, can think and are social? The answer is a resounding, “No.”

When I say the next generation of workers, I’m not just talking about the 8-year-old today who could be entering the job market in ten years. I’m also imaging the current 18-, 28-, 38-, 48-, 58- and even 68-year-old people who will still be in the labor force in a decade’s time.  They are all important, they all matter and we will need them to prosper. Are we preparing all of these generations to prosper in an age of sentient tools? Again the answer is a resounding, “No.”

To take best advantage of these new tools, the labor force will need to be trained to work with tools that think, using these tool abilities to highlight what humans are really good at. Learning will need to be activity based as opposed to content and exam driven.

The coming age of sentient tools looms on the horizon over a decade into our future. This coming age will bring about tremendous opportunities and equally as massive threats and destabilization. Recognizing that the confluence of these technologies is taking place is the first step. Next, individuals and organizations need to imagine both the futures they want and the futures they want to avoid.  Simple steps and preparation taken today can have tremendous effect over the next ten years. 

9 Billion Schools: A Vision for the Future

Can the 9 Billion Schools vision for the future of education provide us some of these simple steps that we can take today to prepare us for this daunting and possibly amazing future? I believe the answer is, “Yes.”

But first a disclaimer…

Over the past few years I have worked with multiple organizations exploring the effects of the coming age of sentient tools and their effects on education.  As a futurist, I work with organizations that need to make decisions today to prepare for a future that may be a decade on the horizon. I have worked with K-12 schools, community colleges, universities, federal agencies and private companies. I have worked directly with the editors of this book to explore how these technological changes will not only radically alter the requirements we put on our educational system, but also how we redefine education going forward.

Three Simple but Radical Steps

These new technologies and my experience in the industry show that when it comes to the future of education, we are faced with a new set of requirements that are quite different from before. The 9 Billion Schools approach to personalized learning is a way to meet these new requirements. By focusing on life-long, life-wide, life-deep, we all have a way to prepare for the coming future.

Step One: Life-long Learning

The need for life-long learning will be essential to prepare for the coming age of sentient tools.  We know that in a decade’s time, we will have nearly six generations in the labor force. From the Baby Boomers who choose to keep working or are required to do so to fund their semi-retirement, down through Generation X, who will be coming to the end of their careers, each will have a role to play.

By the year 2026, Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce. They are the most highly educated and under employed generation we have seen. How will they adapt to this shifting landscape? Similarly, the generation that follows the Millennials – some call them Gen Z or iGen – will be just finishing their education and taking their first tentative steps into the labor force. Will their education prepare them for this future?

Finally, there is the generation that comes after. This is the generation that is being born today. Will their K-12 experience prepare them to take the reins as the next boom generation, taking over from the Millennials?

With this view, we can see how life-long learning becomes a requirement for our future.  Educational institutions, private businesses and government policies will have to adjust who they imagine our students will be in the future, and how they will be educated.

Step Two: Life-Wide Learning

Sentient tools will leave no part of our lives unaffected. How we live and work and play will change. Because of this, we’ll need a life-wide approach to education as well.  This vision will push us to alter our resources, expand and update our systems, build out a broader infrastructure and discover new opportunities for learning. This widened approach will allow us to touch all aspects of people’s lives: academic, professional, and even recreational.

This focus across all the various aspects of humans’ complex and shifting lives means that we can better prepare for the technological, cultural and economic shifts that will accompany the rise of sentient tools. We may not even know how these tools will effect these areas of our society but with this wide approach we will have a wider field of view, exposing new opportunities and areas for growth.

Step Three: Life-Deep Learning

Human creativity and diversity is an amazing thing. It is our diversity that has allowed us to survive and thrive. This will not stop and may become even more important in the age of sentient tools. A life-deep approach to learning will allow us to embrace that diversity and inherent curiosity. Shifting our vision for the future of education to systems and norms which allow people to go as deep as they want into the topics they need to understand or are wildly passionate about – this give us a way to meet the immediate needs of our families, local communities as well as our states and nations.

A life-deep approach opens up how we educate ourselves, gaining wisdom and meaning for broader subjects such as ethics, philosophy or theology.  These subjects are tightly knit to our humanity and the definition of our culture.  They allow us to ask what we value, what kind of future we want and what kind of future we want to avoid.

These questions are incredibly important as we face a future in which technology can do more for us, automate our lives, and radically change our definitions of work, value and leisure.

But ultimately these three simple steps also highlight the one thing that these sentient tools will never be able to do: Be Human.

Be Human: The Best Job Security

As a futurist I spend much of my time counseling executives and leaders, I talk with communities and schools, I mentor and work with the next generation that will one day drive our economy and actually build our future. Despite their differences, each of these groups inevitably asks me similar questions:

How do I prepare for the future?

How can I future-proof my education?

I tell them all the same thing. If you want to be prepared for the future, ready for employment with sentient tools and even allow your communities to thrive: Be Human.  It’s the one thing that technology isn’t good at.

Throughout history, many people have trained to perform specific tasks that have been taken on by machines, but one thing that machines are notoriously bad at is being human. And it turns out that humans like other humans.

The 9 Billion Schools approach to EQ as opposed to IQ is important because in the future – while technological advances may allow sentient tools to take over many of the tasks performed by humans today – technology will never possess the same level of emotional intelligence that people inherently do.  This raw resource of empathy will need to be refined, rewarded and developed but it is uniquely powerful.

The age of sentient tools will place new pressures and requirements on our educational systems. These coming changes will afford us great possibilities but they will also come with great peril. The 9 Billion Schools vision gives us a starting point to imagine a future where every human being is valued and can rise to their potential. This is not science fiction but a reality that, if pursued with passion and purpose, may just transform our tomorrow into an age of unimaginable dignity and prosperity.

Brian David Johnson is a Futurist in Residence and Professor of Practice in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University. He’s also a Futurist and Fellow at Frost and Sullivan, a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth. He also works with governments, militaries, trade organizations and startups to help them envision their future. 

Brian has more than 30 patents and is the author of a number of books of fiction and nonfiction, including “Science Fiction Prototyping”; “Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment, Computing and the Devices We Love”; “Humanity and the Machine: What Comes After Greed?”; and “Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into the Future of Technology.” His writing has appeared in publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal and Slate to IEEE Computer and Successful Farming, and he appears regularly on Bloomberg TV, PBS, Fox News and the Discovery Channel.

He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter. Lately, Brian has been doing a lot of research and writing for his Future of the American Dream Project.

You can reach Brian at