Journalist of the Year Portfolio

The revolution has begun

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Sophomore Kyle Smith has innovation in his blood.

Take a walk through his house, and you’ll see it. A robot lab full of new gadgets and inventions. Computers connecting each room. Prototypes scattered on the floors.

When the U.S. landed the Viking Project on Mars in 1976, his grandfather was responsible for building it.

When the internet began to explode in 1993, his father brought it to Dallas.

And when he came to the school, naturally, Kyle Smith followed in his family’s legacy of innovation — joining the computer science class.

Ever since he was a kid, Kyle Smith’s dad, Jeff Smith — who holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence — has pushed him towards the “world of technology.”

“He forced me to code even when I hated it, which I did at first,” Kyle Smith said. “[My dad’s] a big influence. He gives me opportunities to meet a bunch of people that are really influential in technology, and he also helps me develop ideas and challenges me with complicated problems that I wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.”

But even though every room in the Smith house is filled with robots, artificial intelligence and other new technology — technology that will change the way we all live in the next decade — the Smith family has never approached it with fear.

Because when people like the Smiths look at these technologies, they see what scientists have called “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the revolution that will make robots, artificial intelligence and nanoscale technology all commonplace by the year 2027.

Ten years ago, when you called your phone company, a person was on the other line. Today, it’s artificial intelligence. Today, computers invest your money, create art and even diagnose diseases. And today, experts are reporting the revolution could put as many as 80 million U.S. jobs at risk.

But the question remains. Are we ready for it?

James Sharp ’12, strategy manager for Sparefoot — an online marketplace geared toward finding rates for storage across a wide variety of providers — is in the middle of the movement working toward technology advancement in the workplace with this revolution in mind.

“I’m trying to build a smart platform that will move the manager out of the equation from monitoring and move him more into the action side of things,” Sharp said. “Instead of a person having to sit there and look for that deviation against the trend line, the machine automatically alerts you whenever there is a deviation across your entire business so managers spend a lot of time acting on issues instead of looking for issues.”

This topic of the future of the work dynamic is at the forefront of conversations in places like Silicon Valley. Startups like Sparefoot are thinking of ways to replace human tasks in the workplace as part of the progression towards the revolution.

“The next step of enabling people to work smarter is soon you’re going to make that person not work,” Sharp said. “The more and more you remove tasks from people’s work and give them to machines, pretty soon people won’t work. That’s where the true revolution comes. You are going to see bits and pieces start to get eroded at the task level and at the individual job level and pretty soon you’re going to wake up and whole functions have been replaced.”

Sharp predicts that the resistance and the impact for this revolution will be similar to the First Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s — however, according to Sharp, the American political system is not ready.

“If history is to be a guide, I think there is likely to be a big shock to the American social and political system,” Sharp said. “I don’t think we are prepared for it. I don’t think enough people are talking about it and at the highest levels to make sure we are prepared for it.”

Sharp believes the progression made in technology is not being matched in the American political world, and as a result, he predicts the revolution’s effects will be that much more significant.

“I think technology is moving at a rate that politics and sociology is not keeping up with,” Sharp said. “Especially when you look at the political system in the U.S. right now, I do not think the system is ready for massive disruption of the American workforce.”

And as an artificial intelligence innovator, Jeff Smith says the rapid changes in the workplace will affect all kinds of fields, even ones not traditionally linked to technology.

“Nowadays, coding is a part of all jobs,” Smith said. “That’s why it’s so important. It’s not necessarily that you’re going to become a programmer, but a lot of the things that we do are very programming-ish.”

For many, these innovations stand directly against traditional liberal arts subjects like English and history.

But according to English Department Chair Michael Morris, there’s promise in the intersection of the two seemingly separate worlds.

Morris says there are already signs of the technology and arts worlds melding together in many of the English classes in the school.

“Even in the English department we have a number of teachers who are implementing the flipped classroom format,” Morris said. “We’re trying to use technology in a way that could be advantageous by using it to present the information to students, so that when they come to class, that learning is in place and then you have the opportunity to build on it.”

Morris, however, also has his reservations when it comes to the extent technology controls the workings of the classroom, even beyond English. He believes that the natural, face-to-face interactions are what make classrooms so effective.

“I shudder to think of all that could be lost if we went without the shared experience of reading and discussing literature and appreciating each other as human beings,” Morris said. “It’s beyond the acquisition of knowledge. It’s more about developing as a person.”

In the event that these advancements in technology eventually actualize in the English classroom, Morris believes that the liberal arts and technology can work together beneficially.

“Research into the brain is giving us more and more insight into how we perceive emotions,” Morris said. “I think people who study the liberal arts have a lot to add to that process. The contributions and the insights of people who have read literature and appreciate language are essential to understanding the human experience.”

Dylan Clark ’14 lives in this intersection of the computing and humanities worlds. He was deeply involved in the humanities his whole life, but the fall of his sophomore year at Harvard, when it was time to declare his major, he chose coding.

“A number of my friends had taken the introductory computer science class, and they recommended it to me,” Clark said. “I was taking that sophomore year, and I realized that the types of problems that could be solved with computer science were really attractive to me, and I enjoyed doing the work for that more than I did with any of my other classes. At the same time, I’m still taking humanities classes outside.”

Although he switched his life’s trajectory towards the sciences, Clark, like Morris, believes that humanities will still be an essential aspect of a functioning society.

“I don’t think humanities and science are opposed to one another,” Clark said. “I think they work really well together. They inform you in different ways that complement each other. I still think there’s no replacement for the types of jobs that require interacting with people, because people place a high value on those occupations. Humanities provides the foundation for interacting with the world and shaping a worldview in a way that computer science doesn’t at all.”

According to Founders’ Master Teaching Chair and robotics team sponsor Doug Rummel, the school’s current standing in both STEM and arts subjects show promise for the next generation of Marksmen — the Marksmen who will drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“Ever since the McDermott science building, we’ve always kinda had an engineering look at things,” Rummel said. “And now that our arts programs our flourishing — now that we have nationally ranked writers and poets and ceramicists — that has to come with it too. You can’t just be math and science because frankly you need to have the other part too.”

But whether it’s teaching artificial intelligence to his Information Engineering class or helping a committee draw plans for the new Winn Science Center that Rummel says will “embed coding into everything,” Rummel thinks Marksmen will have the skills to succeed in the revolution.

“If you’re fearless in your ability to just try new stuff and engage, I mean, that’s one thing at St. Mark’s — for the most part, we are relatively fearless when it comes to trying new stuff,” Rummel said. “We aren’t afraid to try. And we are hungry. And put those two together and that’s really what we’re trying to do with the new Winn Science Center.”