While reading Walter Isaacson’s biography book about Jennifer Doudna, the 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, alongside Emmanuelle Charpentier, for their ground-breaking work on CRISPR gene-editing technology, I came across this quote:
"If I had to do it all over again—pay attention, you students reading this—I would have focused far more on the life sciences, especially if I was coming of age in the twenty-first century. People of my generation became fascinated by personal computers and the web. We made sure our kids learned how to code. Now we will have to make sure they understand the code of life."
Gene editing is a technique that adds, removes, or alters sections of the DNA sequence. The implications of this technology are extensive as it might help treat diseases such as cancer, create drought-resistant and disease-resistant crops that will alleviate food scarcity in the context of climate change, or innovate the biofuel industry.
CRISPR is an extraordinary discovery because it makes it easy to change the world.
Unfortunately, gene editing could worsen social inequality because
“look at what parents are willing to do to get kids in college,” Zhang ( Feng Zhang, biochemist well known for his role in the development of CRISPR technologies ) says. “Some people will surely pay for genetic enhancement. In a world in which there are people who don’t get access to eyeglasses, it’s hard to imagine how we will find a way to have equal access to gene enhancements. Imagine what that will do to our species.”
And we, unfortunately, should expect a near future of bio-hacking, for better or for worse, as in 2018, gene-edited babies were born in secrecy and with no ethical supervision.
Coming back to the original quote, I want to focus more on “If I had to do it all over again—pay attention, you students reading this—I would have focused far more on the life sciences, especially if I was coming of age in the twenty-first century. “
Looking at what was invented in the last decade, it is mind-boggling how much we advanced in such a short time frame. The inventions and discoveries rhythm will accelerate further as our children hold immense potential to create future technologies we, their parents or caregivers, can’t even fathom.
As I have a young daughter, the question of what skills should today’s children possess to face tomorrow’s challenges is a motif that frequently appears in my articles.
On one side, we have Isaacsoon’s remark that life sciences would become crucial as we continue to decipher and interpret the code of life.
Then, practical skills will remain relevant, as our children will need to learn how to cook, swim, keep their place livable, and have self-defence skills or financial education, etc.
Satya Nadella, the Microsoft CEO, identified a few skills in his Hit Refresh book that “future generations must prioritize and cultivate. To stay relevant, our kids and their kids will need” skills such as:
- empathy (empathy is an incredibly problematic skill to replicate by writing code, and thus “empathy will be invaluable in the human-AI world”)
- education (to adapt to the ever-changing job market requirements)
- creativity (“machines will enrich and augment our creativity, but the human drive to create will remain central”)
- judgment and accountability (although we might accept computer-generated medical diagnoses or legal decisions, we still expect that humans to be accountable for those decisions).
Maybe we should emphasize more soft skills instead of technical excellence with our children because, as historian Yuval Harari writes in his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century book:
Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invent new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.
I do believe the meta-skill of perpetually reinventing ourselves to adapt to new economic and social realities will be the most sought-after employment and personal skill. The difficult truth is that we cannot afford to remain the same as the speed of change is too harsh.
Skills that were in demand just a decade ago are considered obsolete now.
I should know this, as I used to be a Flex software developer ten years ago, a technology that is irrelevant nowadays. True, there is more to a job than knowing the ins and outs of a specific technology, and it was the abstract thinking I acquired in time and a willingness to retrain that allowed me to switch and learn skills relevant to my current software job.
Nevertheless, adapting to new realities requires immense reserves of cognitive flexibility. Every few years, we and the future generations will have to reinvent ourselves, either through upskilling or switching careers entirely. How to become resilient in the face of neverending change is everybody’s lesson to learn, unlearn and relearn.
Paul Graham, computer scientist, entrepreneur, and the co-founder of Y Combinator — the start-up launcher of Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, DoorDash, Reddit, etc, also writes about the concept of adopting a flexible mindset. In a high school graduation speech he never delivered, Graham writes that:
There are other jobs you can’t learn about, because no one is doing them yet. Most of the work I’ve done in the last ten years didn’t exist when I was in high school. The world changes fast, and the rate at which it changes is itself speeding up. In such a world it’s not a good idea to have fixed plans.And yet every May, speakers all over the country fire up the Standard Graduation Speech, the theme of which is: don’t give up on your dreams. I know what they mean, but this is a bad way to put it, because it implies you’re supposed to be bound by some plan you made early on. The computer world has a name for this: premature optimization. And it is synonymous with disaster.
… I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.
I will always be grateful to my mother for pushing me to study computer science and mathematics, although I showed more potential for creative writing. It was hard work, and I had to force myself through heavy books of geometry and algebra.
Still, I believe it is an easier transition from programming to writing (as I do right now, full-time software engineer by day, blogger by lunch breaks) than going the other way, from writer to software engineer. By studying both mathematics and writing, I kept my options available.
As I wrote in another article, Letters to my Daughter: Myths and Tips to Strategically Distinguish Between Careers and Passions, we should “try to broaden our aspirations and passions by having a bigger picture of the economic opportunities of today and tomorrow…
For technical people, that means broadening non-technical skills, such as public speaking, writing, etc. For non-technical people, maybe it would be better to adopt analytical and technical skills. By becoming flexible, we can better adapt and survive the harsh economic competition and volatile job markets. “
According to an article from the World Economic Forum, the most crucial skills that we will need in the next years are learning how to learn and critical thinking.
But learning without discerning facts from disinformation (information meant to deceive – e.g., trolls posting fake information) or misinformation (defined by Nina Schick in her Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse book as “bad information with no malicious intent behind it” – e.g., our friends and family willingly sharing disinformative content) is useless.
We need to look at how divided societies are concerning COVID-19 safety measures to understand how essential is critical thinking as a life skill. Especially with dishonest article titles meant to generate clicks, revenue and collection of user data, it became much too easy to agree or disagree with a piece of given information instead of thinking critically about it. All too often, we might share information that we didn’t verify to see if it is accurate or coming from devious sources.
For example, this Reuters article fact-checked a pre-print study about myocarditis risks following the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines. In the end, the study had to be retracted due to miscalculations.
Now, searching online after “Covid-19 vaccine myocarditis” reflects that the Covid-19 poses a much higher risk of myocarditis than mRNA vaccines. Still, how many of the people that read the initial articles also read about the retraction of the study?
Let’s not forget that not all quality English articles about COVID-19 are translated to other languages and the same search query but in a different language can show a much different perspective. And of course, what sells best: “Breaking News: Myocarditis from vaccines!” or “Err…no, higher risk of myocarditis from COVID-19 than from vaccines”?
Thus, critical thinking or learning how to think is a skill we must cultivate in our children and us.
We don’t know what the future holds for our children. Will our children be able to shape and control the ethics of genetically enhancing their children? Will they cultivate critical thinking, empathy, and accountability?
Will they be stuck in a job or a career they despise? Will they know how to reinvent themselves and look for better opportunities? Will they afford the mental space and the financial resources to constantly reinvent themselves? Will they rise to the challenges of the 21st century? Will they fail, and if so, will they rise again?
We simply don’t know. What we can do is pass our knowledge to them, wise or not, as countless other generations did before us.
Previously published here.
Related articles: Automation, AI, and the Future of Jobs.