Claudio Rivera: Technologies cannot steal the humanity of our children

In the book "The Picture of Dorian Gray," Oscar Wilde tells about a young man whose portrait is getting older and uglier with each day, while he continues to look young and enjoys life fully at the expense of other people. As the story unfolds the thing that felt like a blessing is starting to become a curse. Seemingly "young Dorian" is not able to confront the reality of his soul which is so clearly portrayed in the painting.

Last week the Ministry of Education and Science, State Education Development Agency and Riga Business School organised the international forum of education www.futures2050.lv to look at the future – how the world will look like after few years and what changes we need to introduce in our educational system, if we are to be ready to prepare ourselves and generations who will begin studies for future challenges. Discussions during the conference reminded me of the story by Wilde.

Similar to how Dorian received some kind of "super powers" to live longer and healthier, it is clear that all future generations will receive exactly that kind of – technological – powers we cannot even imagine. People are given the opportunity to live longer, care for their health better, travel faster and further, obtain more intelligent information, form communication channels the size of which we are just starting to grasp.

But just like for the Dorian from the story, also this "super power" will challenge the humanity of our children. Power gives independence. Dorian was independent from the "diseases of getting old". However, if the power is not used in a responsible and smart manner, the harm can be serious. We are observing how the lack of responsibility in using new technologies is creating "harm" for the humanity of many people. It is enough to remind about the mental health problems caused by social networks.

It was not a surprise that technologies were not the point of focus of the conference. Instead we heard a lot about the human side of the expected changes. It is written in the book of K. S. Lewis “The Abolition of Man” that "Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger."

Each new technology we invent gives us greater power, ensuring bigger power both for technologies and those controlling them. Therefore, we require also greater training for those having the power and we need to understand the social and ethical consequences of each technology.

Some might object that attempts to dwell into the "imaginary future" is a waste of time and energy that otherwise could be devoted to more urgent and real problems. In the end, we don’t know how technologies and society will actually change after five years, not to mention 30 years which was the perspective of this forum.

Nevertheless, the team of organizers decided not to succumb to this attitude. And this challenge is, probably, the main asset of the forum. We all are aware that plans are not implemented if we have an unclear long-term perspective. True value of planning is not in defining the attainable goals but in understanding what is the core value of our offer.

This forum did exactly that. Instead of offering a set of aims and roadmap to the future, it has promoted a sharp and observant perspective on the fact what we are as humans, what we are as a society and what is education in its essence.

As the development of technologies impacts also our communication, relations with home country, forming of relationships and development of the democratic society, we focus on the question: what is most important in humans and human societies? As the development of technologies influence also operation of the labour market, what tasks do machines perform better than humans and what tasks humans do better than machines, we were solving the question: what is important in the work of the person and what are the most important skills of the person? As the development of technologies impacts the provision and goals of education, we have to solve the following issue: what it is the most important in studies and what are the most important goals of education?

Yes, we were searching for clarity during the entire course of the forum. Considering the upheaval technologies have caused in society, the social contract of education is broken. And there is no time to wait for healing. It is difficult for many institutions to regain the significance of former days. Young people encounter significant difficulties; there are many questions about whether they are motivated by the existing process of education. Companies are not able to find the talents they need. Going forward, the changes will be even more significant and discrepancy in the offer of educational system even bigger.

The forum concluded with a certain step forward as the Minister of Education Anita Muižniece announced the creation of the education innovation laboratory together with MIT and Riga Technical University. When we try to develop for the future, the attitude – self-worth – is important, which is the confidence in one’s abilities to achieve important results. We do not have the possibility to see how the future will look like, but we have the chance to boost our "self-confidence" to welcome it. The laboratory Minister announced is an attempt to bring into motion the “self-confidence” of Latvian institutions and managers to create power for the future.

MIT Education Program Director, Riga Business School Deputy Director Claudio Rivera