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On Being Mortal

By Dean Whittaker

This month’s book recommendations include Thomas Friedman’s, “Thank You for Being Late,” and Atul Gawande’s, “Being Mortal.” In Friedman’s book, we learn that the rate of change is accelerating, driven by technology that has been compounding on itself for 40 years, resulting in artificial intelligence that many fear will be humanity’s undoing. Gawande, in his book, describes the inevitable aging process that, if we live long enough, we will all experience.

Woody Allen, in his film biography, said that he became sullen and depressed when, at the age of five, he realized that he was mortal. I remember a parent’s answer to their child that asked why people die. The parent explained that people die, ‘to make room for the next generation.’

Both the aging process and the exponential rate of change have something in common. Both are processes that impact us all. In the case of technology, it is an accelerating rate of change. Meanwhile, aging is a slowing down, a diminishing of life’s energy, calcification of the joints, hardening of the arteries, a dimming of light reaching the retina.

The two processes differ in that technology’s rate of change is exponential while the aging process is linear. This difference brings us to the crux of the problem. The problem is that humans (sometimes called people) perceive change at a linear rate that’s predictable, steady, and even over time. Technologically-driven change, on-the-other-hand, is accelerating over time, compounding (and building) on itself, creating increased connectivity, processing power, and cloud computing beyond the capacity of any one person to understand.

So, what is a body to do? Well, first of all, relax. It is happening to all of us. We fear that what we do for a living may no longer be needed. Chances are, it won’t be done by a human (person) much longer. Machines will be it better and cheaper. The challenge is staying relevant in a world that is changing faster than we can adapt.

Part of the answer to staying relevant is in accelerating and continuous learning. Some of us felt that once we have “graduated,” we are done learning. Those people will be left behind first. Those engaged in life-long learning and a continuing curiosity will anticipate the changes coming and acquire those skills that will be needed. So, what skills will be necessary?

Interestingly enough, it will be human (people) skills; the skills Daniel Pink pointed out in “A Whole New Mind” that are and will be needed including Design, Story Telling, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Our ability to develop these skills will give us a chance to remain relevant. However, AI is taking a pretty good run at mastering these skills as well.

In closing, I would remind us Baby-Boomers, this accelerating rate of change (exponential) is a revolution. We can still remember listening to radio programs in the evening and not having the Internet or Google to answer any questions. On-the-other-hand, for the millennial and younger generations, this accelerating rate of change is all they have ever known. To them, this is their normal. So, slide over, put on your seat belt, because we haven’t seen anything yet.

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