{ Rethinking Technology } Charles Fadel on Our Algorithmic, Automated Future


If you ask experts, How do you see the future evolving?, they come up with an acronym that summarizes their view:

VUCA — Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

That in a nutshell is the future. Actually, we’re already in it.

Perhaps the most surprising presentation at the recent Learning & the Brain conference was by Charles Fadel, the founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign.

For me, Fadel’s talk completely realigned the conversation on 21st century education — by presenting a more accurate understanding of the breathtaking pace, direction, and implications of technological innovation.

What Fadel made especially clear is that the true nature and impact of this innovation tends to escape us for the simple reason that much of it evolves out of public view.

A very similar version of his entire 50-minute presentation can be seen here. It’s worth viewing in its entirety, but in the meantime, here are some key highlights.

on technological acceleration

In the first part of my career, I was in semiconductor technology… so I’ve seen what geometric progressions can do. When things double in capability every 18 months, it’s quite unfathomable…. We’re wired to understand the mathematical world in a logarithmic fashion rather than in an exponential fashion. Our perception of numbers is not preparing us to understand what happens when things double every 18 months in the case of semiconductor technology, or 12 months in the case of storage, or doubling every nine months in the case of bandwidth. We just cannot fathom what happens from one generation to the next.


In current trends, you will have the latitude to buy an iPhone with 40 Terrabytes in 2015. What would you do with 40 Terrabytes? What would you do with 40 Exobytes in 2025?.. You will be able to record yourself, from birth onward, and store it. You’ll never have another argument with your significant other: Rewind, and — I told you so! 

Here’s the discontinuity: [This storage] is already possible in the cloud… It’s actually quite doable and affordable. And it’s only going to get more doable and affordable — on an exponential basis.

“The future is already here — it s just not evenly distributed.”
— William Gibson, 2003

[Technological innovation] is all around us, we just don’t see the point at which it’s going to scale up and become profoundly impactful. The internet was around for 25-odd years, virtually invisible to most people. And then all of a sudden it popped up because it passed the “knee” of the [S-] curve of exponential [growth].


What the hardware progression [over the past few decades] has been hiding is how fast the software is progressing… Kinks and bugs give us the impression that [software] is doing very poorly by comparison [to hardware].

But actually, algorithms, which are themselves are powering all sorts of industries…, are progressing at an amazing rate. So [the time required to complete one linear programming task] has dropped from 82 years to one minute [in just fifteen years], which is an improvement of 43 million. Of which a factor of 43,000 is due to algorithms. That’s 43x times more than the increase due to hardware.


Invention Machine [a Boston innovation company] cataloged thousands of patterns, and started noticing [that] very often Innovation occurs following patterns.

[Fadel gave the example of propeller blades increasing from one, to two, to three, to four blades, and then to “double-four-blade” propellers.]


There’s an object you use in your daily life that has followed the same progression: the razor blade. One, two, three, four — six [blades] now. You can literally predict that at some point, Gillette or someone will say, Hey, I can have this thing move in the middle, and that will be a double-four blade. That has happened with cameras, albeit digitally, not mechanically….

So inventions follow patterns, and if it’s a pattern, it can be automated. You could literally launch a computer program, then go in and patent the next three-blade, four-blade… It’s so incremental, it’s almost mindless. What’s amazing to me is we actually do buy six blades.

Incremental Innovation = improving the existing ‘state’
Radical innovation = inventing a completely new ‘state’

There’s a difference between incremental innovation, which can be quite readily automated, and radical innovation, which isn’t.

So, the good news is that computers aren’t quite yet capable of radical innovation. You’re not going to have a computer coming up with a Bach piece by [itself].

But the bad news is that most innovation is actually incremental. So when we say we’re going to teach our kids creativity — yes, incremental creativity and invocation is important but we also have to realize that we have to somehow push them to the radical side as much as possible. Because the Incremental side can be automated.




Fluidity with technology 
Asking the right questions

They’re not so much about knowledge — traditional knowledge that we all love and nurture — but about higher-order skills of all types, particularly skills and character traits.

To learn about other incredible examples of existing technology — such as augmented-reality contact lenses, cancer diagnoses made by offshore computer, and robotic prison guards, to name just a few — I encourage you to watch Charles Fadel’s entire presentation, made available by the Ross School.

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