US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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The Pleasure of Disproving the Experts

Want to run? Experts say you need nice running shoes, controlled diets, and fancy nutrition gels.

Want to start a podcast? Experts might tell you that you need the latest microphones, a sound mixer, a perfectly soundproof room, and high-cost conferencing software.

Want to get into photography? Experts might say you need to get a fancy camera and understand aperture, shutter speed, ISO speed, exposure, and all the rest.

Of course, they’d be mistaken.*

You *can* become a runner without equipment. Equipment can help prevent health risks in the long term, but then people have also been running long before running stores were a thing.

You *can* be a decent photographer without investing tons of time and money. If you know how to capture the right moments and you use the right light and angles, you can get good shots.

You *can* start a podcast, even if you don’t have the production capabilities of FOX News or CNN. Just get a microphone and someone interesting to speak into it.

Expert opinions are great, especially when they help you to get a job done. But I get rebellious when expert advice seems calculated to terrify the hearer into helpless dependence on experts (and the things they sell). I’ve seen myself and others get to that place of paralysis before. I get out by doing the things I’m not supposed to be able to do, and doing them with a lot less knowledge and a lot fewer resources.

It takes a bit more work, but it’s well worth it to try things your way (without being cocky or careless) when experts tend to stand in the path instead of clearing it.

And it’s so much fun, because it’s so much fun to set people free from fear of starting.

*Or you would be mistaken for taking their advice as absolute. These words are wisdom when applied to the extremes in running, photography, podcasting – if you’re going pro, you do want to make investments like these.

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The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers, Part 3

Early one morning last December, Jeff Gracik was heading to his southern California home garage-workshop where he makes his living when he heard a loud, hurried knock on his front door. Thinking it might be a rushed UPS driver, he quickly opened the door. But it wasn’t UPS. Standing on his doorstep were three badge-flashing inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They had come to inspect Jeff’s business.

Just what is Jeff’s business? Does he produce food? No. Does he produce drugs? No again. So why the unannounced visit by FDA inspectors?

Jeff makes pipes for tobacco pipe smokers. He doesn’t make tobacco, mind you, which (alas) Congress empowered the FDA to control, but pipes, most of which are made from wood (most commonly briar, but other varieties too), materials such as acrylic and vulcanized rubber for the mouthpieces, and wood stains, which Jeff buys but does not make.

In its wisdom, the FDA has deemed pipes “tobacco products,” a category of things it regulates under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (TCA) of 2009. Forgive the bureaucratese I’m about to shovel your way, but an FDA document states (pp. 257-58):

“The definition of ‘tobacco product’ … includes all components, parts, and accessories of tobacco products (except for raw materials other than tobacco used in manufacturing a component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product). FDA interprets components and parts of a tobacco product to include any assembly of materials intended or reasonably expected: 1) to alter or affect the tobacco product’s performance, composition, constituents or characteristics; or 2) to be used with or for the human consumption of a tobacco product. Both e-cigarettes and pipes meet this definition.”

You may find it odd that the FDA chooses not to regulate lighters, matches, ashtrays, humidors, and the like, but it has its reason: it deems such things to be accessories, not components and parts. Accessories, the FDA says, “do not contain tobacco, are not derived from tobacco, and do not affect or alter the performance, composition, constituents, or characteristics of a tobacco product.” Since pipes do those things, they are deemed regulated components rather than unregulated accessories.

Who knew the FDA personnel had the wisdom to make such fine distinctions?

Note the first word I emphasized a couple of paragraphs earlier: interprets. The FDA admits it has no explicit statutory authority to regulate things not made or derived from tobacco even if they can be used to consume tobacco. Did the members of Congress who wrote and voted for the TCA (which amended the FD&C) deem non-tobacco products such as wooden pipes to be tobacco products? It appears not. The legislation states that the “term ‘tobacco product’ means any product made or derived from tobacco that is intended for human consumption, including any component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product (except for raw materials other than tobacco used in manufacturing a component, part, or accessory of a tobacco product).”

The word including would seem to limit the covered components, parts, and accessories to things “made or derived from tobacco,” of which the briar root Jeff Gracik uses is not an example. Briar comes from the root of the flowering plant called Erica Arborea, or tree heath.

To reinforce my point, note that the word pipe appears in the TCA only as a qualifier for the word tobacco. The statute’s authors wanted to assure that tobacco is understood to include pipe tobacco and not just cigars and cigarettes. But the legislation contains not one single reference to pipes per se. So Congress apparently did not intend to authorize the FDA to control anything other than tobacco or things derived from it, even things that are likely to be used to consume tobacco.

But no matter. The FDA has assumed the power to deem non-A to be A. Logic and common sense be damned.

At any rate, three FDA inspectors (two of them trainees) turned up unannounced at Jeff Gracik’s door to say that they had the authority under the TCA to enter his premises — right then — and inspect his home workshop. Actually, he had “consented” to inspections once every two years when he registered with the FDA as a pipe maker. Jeff had learned earlier that under the law, retailers could not sell his pipes unless he was registered, so he allowed a retailer to register him, saving him the trouble of doing the paperwork himself. He had no choice: he earns his living as a full-time pipe maker and wants to keep doing so.

Jeff, who is 39, started making pipes in 2003. He sold his first one a year later and has since built a sterling reputation among pipe collectors. He makes 100 to 125 pipes a year — which sell for $800 to $3,000 apiece — under the name J. Alan Pipes. Jeff is an artisan; he makes pipes one at a time by hand. Each is unique, a thing of beauty, a dazzling collaboration of nature and human being. He and brother Jeremy have a second, lower-priced line of partially machine-made pipes under the name Alan Brothers.

Needless to say, Jeff was unaccustomed to having federal agents traipsing around his workshop. “I was so shocked,” he told me. He said the inspectors were friendly but firm — and apparently unsure what they were supposed to be doing. This might have been their first venture into unknown territory. (Other pipe makers are being similarly visited.) The inspectors started asking questions “most of which were not really relevant to pipe making. Things like: tell us about all the materials you use. Tell us about where they’re from. Do you have receipts for where they’re from? We need the names for all the distributors for all your materials. We need to know exactly the ingredients with which they’re treated; so, for instance, briar, how is it treated? Of course, I’m an artisan. I don’t have those kinds of records.”

That was just the beginning. “They had me demonstrate how to make a pipe. So I had to take a block of briar and chuck it in my lathe…. And as the day went on, they became more and more interested in what I was doing.” He said some of their questions suggested they were interested in the potential toxicity of materials and ingredient, but that’s as far as that went. They tested no materials or stains and took no sample with them. Jeff was not told to submit anything for approval.

The visit lasted six and a half hours, as if this small businessman had nothing better to do than entertain a group of FDA inspectors. “I got nothing done that day,” he said.

“They wanted to see written procedures,” he explained. “How do you do A to Z?” He told them that as a craftsman and unlike a factory, he has no written procedures. As the hours went by he sensed he was almost gaining sympathy from the inspectors.

Jeff said he did his best to comply with all requests, including requests for documents going back to 2006. “If they shut me down because I failed to answer a question to their satisfaction,” he said, “then my kids don’t eat and we foreclose on our house.”

For the record, the TCA states that regulations “shall not impose requirements unduly burdensome to a tobacco product manufacturer or importer, taking into account the cost of complying with such requirements and the need for the protection of the public health ….” Decide for yourself if the FDA obeys that prohibition.

The FDA and those who support government control will point out that even though pipes are not made from tobacco, they are used to consume tobacco. That’s true. But Gracik points out that some people who buy his pipes, which can be as beautiful as any work of art, are collectors who don’t smoke. (Interestingly, his grandmother’s first cousin was Andy Warhol.)

It’s hard to say how many pipe makers we have in America. People connected with the industry and hobby estimate the number of full-timers at 25 to 30, with a few hundred more who make and sell pipes part-time. Jeff is afraid that the thicket of rules could persuade many of them to “throw in the towel.” He says: “It scared the hell out of a lot of pipe makers when we found out we were under this kind of scrutiny.”

The pipe makers certainly could use a trade association to protect them. But Gracik says they are, unsurprisingly, individualists and so discussions about forming an association have gotten nowhere.

So the FDA harasses — even if it’s with a smile — small-scale artisans who scratch out livings working by hand with wood and other harmless materials. To what end? It’s all part of a larger puritanical campaign to harass peaceful Americans who enjoy consuming tobacco via cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco and using non-tobacco nicotine e-cigarettes.

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits,” Mark Twain said.

Using tobacco is not risk-free, of course, but most things in life are not risk-free. In the real world, risk can be managed and minimized but never eliminated, and in a free society, individuals have the right to decide for themselves how to go about doing it.

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Reflections from my Panama Cruise, I

I just returned from my Panama Canal cruise.  Reflections:

1. As I’ve mentioned before, cruises are in one sense a great test case for open borders.  Workers from all over the world come together to run one some of the world’s most sophisticated technology and please some of the world’s most demanding customers.  Most of the workers’ lives are harsh by First World standards but great by Third World standards.  And wherever they’re from, the staff work together like Prussian officers.  It’s a marvel of multinational management.

2. As I’ve also mentioned, though, the entire cruise industry also depends on immigration restrictions.  Cruising is affordable because labor costs are very low by First World standards.  Under open borders, these well-trained, highly motivated maritime workers would take advantage of the far better job opportunities available on dry land, drastically raising the price of cruising.

3. If you’ve ever wondered if capitalism is turning human beings into machines, taking a cruise will feed your fears.  The cabin stewards, for example, spend 10-12 hours a day making every room on their watch spotless.  Then they disappear into the lightness belly of the ship, re-emerging the next day to begin their duties again.  An occasional shore leave aside, they work seven days a week.

4. If you’ve ever wondered if cosmopolitanism can really function, taking a cruise will feed your hope.  Filipinos, Mexicans, Ukrainians, Romanians, Jamaicans, Chinese, Brazilians, and dozens of other nationalities don’t just “get along.”  They show more team spirit than any American workforce I’ve seen.

5. Modern American politics vanish on a cruise ship.  There’s zero social justice rhetoric or attitude to be found; passengers and crew all take severe inequality for granted.  You might think that’s because the customers are demographically Republican, but there’s also zero nativist rhetoric or attitude to be found.  Elderly American Republican guests interact amicably with foreigners of every description.  There’s no sign that they’re “making an effort” to overcome their xenophobia; they just apolitically accept the cosmopolitan world that surrounds them.  The cruise culture runs on good manners and shared humanity, not identity politics.  And yes, you really can turn the identity volume dial close to zero – which is where it belongs.

6. What does the crew think about global development in general, or immigration restrictions in particular?  I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I didn’t ask… but their actions speak louder than words.  I’d guess that 90% of the workers originate from the Third World.  The fact that they’ve left their home countries behind to serve spoiled First Worlders is a deafening vote of no confidence in their societies of birth.  And when I see the this massive ship running like clockwork, it’s easy to see the wisdom of their decision.  Business isn’t perfect, but it far more deserving of their admiration and loyalty than the demagogic governments they’ve left behind.

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How Hard Would It Be To Enslave You?

Do you believe you’re free?

Ask yourself how hard it would be for someone to enslave you – politically, emotionally, financially, physically, relationally, mentally.

Do you have debt? We may no longer have debtor’s prisons, but for all intents and purposes, you are one collection away from losing your choice.

Do you have compromised character? While you live a lie, you must beg for others to accept your version of reality (H/T to Ayn Rand). You have become their slave.

Do you give in to bullies or crowds? If you don’t stand up for yourself now, how long will you be able to resist when you face real pressure?

Do you work for someone else? How many paychecks away from dependence are you?

Do you spend wealth instead of investing it? Are you building a future of independence or a future dependent on continued luxury?

Are you borrowing someone else’s values and purpose? How will you stand for yourself in any relationship with others? You will be at the mercy of others.

Do you take things you haven’t earned? The bill from the benefactor comes due at some point.

Are you dependent? Will you keep what independence you do have when things get bad?

Are you unskilled? How will you be able to take care of yourself without turning to dependence?

Are you ignorant? How will you know you have been led astray if you cannot think and do not call on wisdom?

Are you shortsighted? You will not see the consequences that will leave you in chains.

These are all questions which come back to character. In the end – as great thinkers from the Romans to today have told us – it is what keeps us free.

“How hard would it be to enslave you” is the same question as “how virtuous are you, and how virtuous are you willing to be?”

Many of these are questions I ask myself. I hope they can be helpful to you.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Essential Zen Habits of 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, I have to say … it’s been a year of depth but also chaos and blessings for me and Zen Habits.

I’m grateful for the wonderful readers I have had for more than a decade now (all of you!), and for the journey I’ve been on and will continue in the coming year.

Personally, a lot has been going on for me … here are some of the headlines from this year:

  • I launched a new mission: my Fearless Training Program. This is my laboratory for the new kind of training I’m doing with people, the mission I’m on for at least the next couple of years. And it’s been going incredibly well — not only have I set up the training, but we’ve launched a community on Slack with small groups and accountability and support and more. We have more to do, but it’s off to a great start with incredible people who have joined me. Join us!
  • We moved to Guam (temporarily). Yeah, I didn’t really announce this publicly, but in August we packed up our house (sold stuff and put the rest in storage) and moved to Guam. It’s temporary (we’re moving back to California in the spring), but I wanted to be here with our family, including my grandma who is turning 90, mom, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews and many other great people who we miss dearly. It’s a gorgeous tropical island that we still think of as home. I’m especially enjoying the warm, humid winter, along with lush tropical greenery and fruits, and warm ocean water. And being with my grandma.
  • I went deeper into mindfulness. I’ve been training for years in the Zen tradition, and have also been embracing Tibetan Buddhist practices wholeheartedly … but this year, I joined a program by John Wineland where we did deep men’s work. It was a challenge for me, one of great growth.
  • I did a bit of traveling. I did a couple of conferences — Wisdom 2.0 in San Francisco and the World Domination Summit in Portland — and loved both experiences, meeting some great people. I also did an around-the-world tea trip with my friend Tynan, an around-the-world trip with Eva and our friends Suraj and Heena that included my first visit to Africa (amazing), a couple trips to Japan, and a planning retreat with Eva in Mexico. Honestly, it was a bit too much travel, but I’m not complaining — I loved it all.
  • I launched the Mindful Focus Course and did monthly challenges in Sea Change. I launched a 4-week video course called Mindful Focus Course in the spring that was one of my best courses ever, and really loved working with the participants. In my Sea Change Program, I did monthly challenges, and have launched a new Slack community for Sea Change members that is thriving. Join us!
  • I simplified. To get my finances straight, I’ve cut back on spending, both in my business and personal spending. It’s great to return to simplicity when you notice things haven’t been as conscious as they could be.
  • I’m getting ready to grow. That said, I’m ready to grow my business to take my mission to the world. I’m about to hire a Director of Operations, who is going to slowly build a small team for Zen Habits so that we can have as big an impact on the world as possible. Stay tuned.

A lot of other things happened as well — my 19-year-old daughter Maia moved to Japan, my oldest daughter got a new job with Guampedia, my grandmother has been in the hospital for a couple weeks (she’ll live, but she’s in a lot of pain), I’ve been taking yoga classes taught by my beautiful sister Kat, and more.

The Best Zen Habits Posts in 2018

To wrap up this year, here are my favorite Zen Habits post from 2018:

  1. How to Develop a Mind That Clings to Nothing
  2. It’s Not a Problem, It’s an Experience
  3. The Little Handbook for Getting Stuff Done
  4. A Practice For When You Find Yourself Annoyed by Other People
  5. A Case Against Optimizing Your Life
  6. The Magic of Seeing Everything as Sacred
  7. Give Up Comfort
  8. Paring Down Your Life
  9. Four Antidotes to Procrastination
  10. Grand Canyon Focus: The Practice of Full Devotion to a Single Task

My most popular tweet of 2017:

Formula for when you’re unmotivated: disconnection, rest, a good walk, & reflection about what you deeply care about.

— Leo Babauta (@zen_habits) March 25, 2018

And more

For more best of Zen Habits:

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