What Lies Ahead? Predicting the Future of Computing

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Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.

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Overview | What might the future of computing and technology look like? What innovations are on the horizon? In this lesson, students consider predictions about the future of fields including artificial intelligence, communication and computing. They analyze current predictions, consider them in the context of modern-day life and propose predictions of their own.

Materials | Computers with Internet access, projector, copies of the handout The One-Question Interview (PDF), student journals.

Warm-Up | Individually or in pairs, have students use a One-Question Interview (PDF) format to complete a brief activity to assess the class’s knowledge and beliefs about technology.

Assign one of the questions below to each pair, or develop your own questions that suit your students and their background knowledge. Have pairs write their question on the top of the handout. Explain that as they move around the room to ask their question, their classmates will be doing the same. (Complete teacher directions for this activity are available here.)

Remind students to explain their answers to yes/no questions. Interviewers might encourage further elaboration by asking a follow-up question, like “Why or why not?” or “Why do you think so?”

Possible questions:

  • What is technology?
  • What is a computer?
  • What did the earliest computers look like?
  • When were the earliest computers invented?
  • What did the earliest computers require (like electricity)?
  • When do you think the first computer program was written?
  • How long ago was the first computer virus developed?
  • What has been the most important advancement in computing so far?
  • What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen or heard about in the field of computing?
  • Over all, would you say technology has had a beneficial impact, a negative impact or hasn’t changed society much at all?

After five to 10 minutes, have students return to their desks to analyze and draw conclusions from their results. Then ask students to briefly share their findings with the class, and open a discussion that addresses each question. For example, does a common definition of “technology” emerge from student responses? How do the responses differ? Is there a right answer? Do any of the responses make students think differently about the topics? How?

Next, project the “past” section of the “Predicting the Future of Computing” timeline. Discuss the timeline as a class, returning to the interview questions. Ask: After viewing the timeline, do you want to modify any of your replies to the interview questions? What surprises you about the developments on the timeline?

Finally, tell students they will spend the rest of class exploring future directions in computing and technology.

Related | In the article “Imagine 2076: Connect Your Brain to the Internet,” Thomas Lin and Jonathan Huang highlight some of the predictions for the future collected in the Times interactive and crowd-sourced timeline “Predicting the Future of Computing”:

The future, it turns out, starts in 2020.

Far enough in the distance to dream, yet seemingly within arm’s reach, that year was attached to more predictions of technological innovations from readers than any other in the interactive, crowd-sourced timeline published online with “The Future of Computing,” last week’s special issue of Science Times.

Holographic displays. Robotic restaurants. Computers that replace doctors, translators and drivers. If it’s proximate science fiction you want, you’ll have it, it seems, at the end of the decade.

Looking at 2020 and beyond, readers imagined a future with cures for intractable diseases, direct links between brain and computer, automated everything, contact with alien life forms, sentient machines and no language barriers.

Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.

Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:

  1. Describe the interactive timeline and explain, in your own words, how it was put together using both expert input and suggestions from Times readers.
  2. What overall generalization do the authors make about the nature of predictions in the timeline?
  3. Which of the predictions described in the article do you think is most likely to come true? Least likely? Explain.
  4. Why do you think 2020 was a central year in reader predictions?
  5. Why do you think the prediction dates were moved as many as 980 times? Do you tend to be more conservative or more aggressive when making predictions about advancements like these? Why?



Activity | Explain to students that they will now work in pairs to synthesize and analyze predictions made for the future of computing, focusing on a single category.

Assign or allow pairs to choose one of the categories that appear at the top of the interactive timeline: Computation, Artificial Intelligence, Transportation Lifestyle and Communication.

Using the material under the tab labeled “The Future,” each pair should synthesize and analyze their category with the following prompts:

  • Identify any common themes or ideas that unite the predictions for the category.
  • Identify the existing technology or idea on which the prediction is based, and imagine the steps we would need to take to get from today’s technology to the predicted advancement.
  • Identify the prediction they see as most likely to come true, and why they think it is probable. For example, do supporting technologies, infrastructure or ideas already exist?
  • Identify the prediction they see as least likely, and why they find it so.

When groups are finished, have them share their findings and discussions with the rest of the class.

Next, share with them excerpts from two articles, which they will use as frames or lenses to examine the predictions:

When students have a good sense of these two ways of looking at technological advancement, have them respond to the following prompts in their journals:

  • What would life be like in a world where these advancements become reality?
  • Which advancement would you most like to see become reality? Is there one you hope doesn’t ever become reality? Explain.
  • Choose one piece of technology today, like computers, Facebook, smartphones or iPads. Would life be better without it? Or can you not imagine life without it? Explain.
  • What is magical about these innovations? What kinds of losses do they bring, on various levels?
  • When you look at where computing is headed, how do you feel? Identify yourself as a Never-Better, Better-Never or Ever-Waser. Why is that?

After a few minutes of writing, invite students to share some of their thoughts with the whole group.

Going Further | Students make their own predictions in one of the four categories highlighted in the timeline, or in a different category, like consumer products, health care or education. They might consider how the people posing predictions get their ideas or explore why predictions matter.

Predicting the future direction of fields like computing and technology isn’t simply a guessing game – it’s much more of an exercise in creative problem-solving that involves identifying current challenges, documenting current directions in research and development, and inferring where potential solutions lie and how to achieve them.

Students might be inspired by the “What’s Next in Technology” TED Talk series and Wired magazine’s Found columns, which seeks reader input on the technologies, consumer products and other artifacts we might see in the future.

In developing their predictions, students might search the New York Times archives to discover how past technological innovations have been received, and draw on the pro and con arguments from the past.

Standards | This lesson is correlated to McREL’s national standards (it can also be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards):

3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society and the individual.
4. Understands the nature of technological design.
6. Understands the nature and uses of different forms of technology.

Life Skills: Thinking and Reasoning
1. Understands and applies the basic principles of presenting an argument.
2. Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning.
3. Effectively uses mental processes that are based on identifying similarities and differences.
4. Understands and applies basic principles of hypothesis testing and scientific inquiry.
5. Applies basic troubleshooting and problem-solving techniques.
6. Applies decision-making techniques.

Life Skills: Life Work
6. Makes effective use of basic life skills.

Life Skills: Working With Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group.
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills.

Behavioral Studies
1. Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior.
2. Understands various meanings of social group, general implications of group membership and different ways that groups function.
3. Understands that interactions among learning, inheritance and physical development affect human behavior.
4. Understands conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.

Family/Consumer Sciences
4. Understand how knowledge and skills related to consumer and resources management affect the well-being of individuals, families and society.

Language Arts
4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

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