How Are We Going to Learn Faster?

AnnotatingI’ve been reading a lot lately and it regularly reminds me just how slow and inefficient I am at it. It’s not so much the reading process itself, but more how slow I am at actually learning what I’m reading. I underline and make a lot of notes — a conscious tradeoff between reading speed and learning speed. If I really want to digest something, I need to read it more than once, so I annotate to make those subsequent readings more efficient learning experiences later. It’s not a bad strategy, but what drives me crazy is how often I have little retention for passages that I once carefully underlined.

I blame it on the architecture and the organic stuff of which my brain is made.

We’re now getting a much clearer picture of the brain’s architecture. It’s amazingly complex, compact and energy efficient, but it’s already lost out to machines in the race for speed and memory. And that gets us into a bit of a problem.

People are under growing pressure to learn. We compete harder and harder for a limited number of slots in schools and corporations. We are also subjected to a faster and faster flow of information every day. The challenge is bigger than that though: as a species, we are now racing with the machines. Even if you believe that new jobs always emerge out of the creative destruction of automation, the increasingly critical question is whether humans will learn the new work faster than machines will.

Speed of learning is becoming an increasingly important to humanity, and musing over my slow reading, I found myself wondering what it will be like to digest knowledge in the decades ahead:

  • Will more powerful pharmacological solutions — “nootropic” cognitive enhancers — emerge to amp up our natural, biological capabilities?
  • Will we enhance our learning through Matrix-like virtual reality training and education?
  • Will we simply “outsource” our intelligence to machines, pulling in just-in-time answers to our questions via computer-to-brain interfaces?

It’s hard to know just how these and other approaches will change the way we learn in the decades ahead. What’s clear to me sitting here, pondering the large stack of to-read books before me right now, is that the way I learn today will be very different from the way my grandchildren will learn. That makes me excited about the future — and just a tad bit jealous.

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