Several times throughout the day, my watch beeps at me and tells me it is “time to stand up.” Unless I am on the phone or doing an interview, I typically oblige. I get up, walk around the office a bit and refill my water bottle before returning to my desk, feeling smug that I have appeased my watch boss.
The fact that I am willing to let a wristwatch order me around baffles even me, and yet I hate to disappoint her (him? it?). Don’t feel too bad for me though, because I’ve got a robot in my kitchen that I get to tell what to do. Her name is “Alexa,” and she can do things like change the radio station, read me a recipe, set a kitchen timer or tell me jokes – all on my voice command.
These are some of the things my finite mind could not possibly have dreamt up even a decade ago. Yet, here I am, taking orders from my wristwatch and talking to the robot in my kitchen.
Because my kids are growing up with talking countertop robots, it is hard for them to imagine that we once had phones that plugged into walls and actually had two major parts that were also tethered together: the phone and the handset.
So, you can imagine that I felt ancient when, while watching a movie this weekend, we had to pause the movie multiple times to explain to our kids what was happening and what the appliances and devices were.
I had talked my kids into watching one the classics of my youth – “Mr. Mom,” starring Michael Keaton – but I hadn’t realized how many cultural references would be totally irrelevant to them.
If you recall, the premise of the 1983 blockbuster is that after Jack (Keaton) loses his job, his wife, Caroline, gets a job out of the home to support their family. Meanwhile, Jack is left to care for the three children and manage the household. That this was a story line was extraordinary to my kids. What’s the big deal with a mom having a job? And why does the dad act like he’s never been to the grocery store?
In one scene, Jack is watching his afternoon soaps on a TV with foil-wrapped rabbit ears and popping corn using a countertop air popper. This elicited all manner of questions: Why are there horns coming out of his TV? What’s he making with that machine? Why doesn’t he just make popcorn in the microwave? (They also asked about the iron he was using to iron clothes, which could mean that our family wears a lot of wrinkle-free knits. It could also mean that I need to use that particular appliance more regularly.)
My grandmother was born in 1915 and died in 2014. I often marveled at the technological changes she witnessed. She grew up riding to school in a horse-drawn buggy and then witnessed not only flight but also space travel.
But, in my 40-odd years, technology has accelerated even faster. Because each generation of technology improves over the last, the rate of progress from version to version speeds up.
To understand this, imagine making a chair with hand tools, then power tools and eventually assembly lines. Production gets more efficient with each iteration. Now imagine each generation of these tools is also used to design and build increasingly better tools – this is why technological progress is exponential.
When you begin to digest what the exponential rate of technological change means, practically speaking, it becomes evident why the World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children today will end up in careers that do not even exist yet.
So as hard as it was for my kids to conjure life without a microwave or Netflix movies on demand, it is even harder for me to imagine what kind of skills they’ll need in the next two decades or what kind of gadgets they’ll build with those skills.
My 2019 watch can tell me when to stand, how many steps I took and what is next on my calendar. New Apple watches are expected to feature glucose monitoring for people with diabetes. My countertop robot can already tell me jokes, but what else might she able to do with 20 years of additional engineering? (If you’re reading this, Amazon, please enable Alexa to fold the laundry – that is the robot that every mom I know is waiting for.)
Just think of the possibilities.