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Assuming a technology is developed that allows people to either eliminate the need to sleep or study/work subconsciously during their regular sleep cycle, what kind of effect would this have on the amount of time it takes to finish your classical education? Could someone finish college and earn multiple phDs by the time they're eighteen if they had an extra 4-8 hours a day to study? I'm writing a bit of a throwaway bit of worldbuilding and wanted to know if this seemed unrealistic but now I'm honestly very curious about the impact of future technologies on education and learning.

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Personal anecdote

I am a computational statistician. I would generally be judged to be very good a math and computer science. I got a 1600 on my SAT. I graduated with a 3.8 from one of US News' top 10 engineering schools. That was when I was 27. But when I was 20, I failed out of college with a 1.8.

You see, the first time I went to college, I had no idea why I was there. Everyone else went to college, so I guess I should too. I had a vague notion I wanted to build rockets, but had no idea what that entailed. Consequentially, instead of studying or getting interested in research, I joined a fraternity and got interested in Tekken and weed. I was pretty good at Tekken, but that didn't do much for my GPA.

After I failed out, I got a job as a ranch hand and spent half a year mucking stalls and digging fence post holes. Then I enlisted to go invade Iraq. It was a long way back to college, and and even longer road to a Masters degree. I will probably never get a PhD since I wasted so much time shoveling horse crap and bombing Iraq.

Conclusion: Education technology does not matter as much as motivation. If you don't have a good reason to do well in school, you might find yourself smoking weed and failing out, no matter how smart you are. The problem with (most) 15 year olds, especially boys, doing advanced studies has always been and will always be maturity. Therefore, it is going to be hard to push all but the most exceptional students to PhDs so early in life.

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An ordinary someone or a special someone? There are 11-year-olds auditing university mathematics courses as we speak, and the youngest PhD recipient I have heard of was 15, I believe (Except Karl Witte in 1813, but we have no way to gauge whether what he did was equivalent to a modern PhD.)

So that is multiple normal humans, with normal human limitations, achieving at least one PhD by age 18. I would say that you could save enough years to get in a second PhD by age 18 if you could learn in your sleep, but an even better time-saver would be an AI research assistant to do your literature review for you! And write up the method and results sections, for that matter ...

As people have pointed out, a PhD is less about absorbing information and more about actually doing some original research/development. That takes as long as it takes.

(Yes, yes, I know that in the US and some Asian countries, they have a Frankenstein's monster called a "PhD by coursework", but that is regarded by everyone else with the same degree of horror as a "surgeon" who has read all the books but never actually done an operation.)*

*I am a former University lecturer at one of the top universities worldwide (The University of Sydney), and this assertion is based on that experience.

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Brain development still takes time.

If you effectively use sleep to "double up" on school time, handwaving the mechanism that allows this, and do so just during the school year - of course you will save some time. This method probably will allow for somewhat faster graduations.

But time is not the only limiting factor here: there's brain development to consider. If you give a six-year old a normal curriculum, but double the pace (assuming they can keep up with "sleep-learning" which is a whole different discussion), the 12 upcoming years of high school education will be finished in 6 years - at age 12.

If you try to teach a twelve year-old pre-calc, they will not just fail because of a lack of prior knowledge - to some extent, they will fail because of development. Even if you increase the learning speed, the brain will grow at about the same rate - there is no evidence to suggest a twelve year-old who does twice the work will have the brain of an eighteen year-old, which encompasses creativity, reasoning, and a host of other things that we only know possible at certain ages.

┌───────┬──────────────────┐
│  Age  │ Work age level   │
├───────┼──────────────────┤
│ 5-6   │ 5-7              │
│ 6-7   │ 7-8              │
│ 7-8   │ 9-10             │
│ 8-9   │ 11-12            │
│ 9-10  │ 13-14            │
│ 11-12 │ 15-16            │
│ 12-13 │ 17-18            │
└───────┴──────────────────┘

Additionally, you will be graduating people without developed social skills, few long-term memories (a consequence of taking up sleep time), and weaker physical builds - who may not be fit to drive or work.

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Consider this reasoning:

  • Assume the sleep trainers include some sort of AI technology. Surely there isn't a human teacher whispering into the ear of the sleeper.
  • Anything that can be taught by AI can be done by AI cheaper and better. Depending on how the economy is organized, humans might have a hard place doing that in the workplace.
  • If your setting has jobs for humans which are not busy work, they must be doing something an AI cannot do (possibly requiring creative thinking). It is generally assumed that a PhD takes several years of original research and not just parroting what a computer told you.

AI-trained skills may be the basics for non-AI-trained skills. Teach basic numeracy before going to really interesting maths, and so on. So that might save a couple of years during K-12 education, but only a couple of years, not several decades. It won't save much at university, and nothing at the graduate level.

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The points about development are valid.

But our present education system is seriously upwhacked.

At young ages kids are sponges for language. There is no reason why a kid can't be fluent in a hatful[*] of languages by age 8 or so.

At elementary age, kids are sponges for data. They don't think well, but they are good at storing trivia. Some of us never grow out of that. (Or maybe we just don't grow up.)

At high school age, kids are questioning values, and start to use logic.

I suspect that getting an education wouldn't take any less time. But it could be far wider reaching. See Dorthy Sayer's "The Lost Tools of Learning" for some other insights.

[*] hatful: A bunch of severals

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for wider. From the rise of internet we can expect educational system change to expand on the subject that you can choose to learn. But how mature your thought process not entirely rely on how much you've learn the subject. I guess that's why a child prodigy may behave like a child, albeit he/she knows more than the majority of average adult. $\endgroup$ – Hariz Rizki Dec 3 '16 at 20:08
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"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." - Albert Einstein

We really don't know much about the brain. We're just barely starting to plumb its secrets. However, we do have plenty of evidence to show difficult it is to push brilliant children through our current education system. It's really hard to put everyone in the same box and then shuffle that box through the grades. A system which could work individually with each student could do things we consider miraculous.

However, not everything is just knowledge to be learned. There's a major factor called "maturity" which plays a key part. You can cram all the knowledge of biology into a 12 year old's mind, and they won't be ready to serve as a PhD in biology unless they are very special.

Also worth noting is that rest is an essential part of learning. They've found that kindergarten classes which remove recess to add more teaching soon fall behind their fellow schools, while kindergarten classes which add more recess somehow accomplish more (teachers say the children are far more focused, so they get through the material quicker).

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Sleep elimination technologies keep popping up in science-fiction, aren't people and especially writers aware of the problems of sleep deprivation? Besides Nancy Kress has worked this concept over in her Beggars in Spain sequence of novels.

There are studies that show intellectuals and knowledge workers spend more time sleeping than ordinary mortals. Sleep appears to be higher beneficial for people who a lot of brain work. Sleep, in general, seems to be universal among animal species. We may not fully understand why we sleep but it seems to be there for a good reason. It seems foolish to assume a fancy piece of technological kit is going to get rid of it.

It might be far better to assume a technology that rather than eliminating sleep, enhances its beneficial properties. Perhaps this won't reduce the amount of sleep people need, but it might do a better job of integrating memories and knowledge in our brains. Thus improving general knowledge acquisition.

It's time to send sleep elimination technology the way of the videophone and other gizmos everybody imagined everyone else would want, but turned out they didn't. Better sleep, better brains. You know it makes sense.

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I think when we would not need sleep we would use most of that time for other things than education. I guess some people would use that time to study but probably that would not be the norm.

I am almost certain that if we could literally learn in our sleep we would completely stop learning while being awake. It just does not seem time efficient anymore.

Also there would be a lot more people with higher education and time to work. Which would mean less people work or more people work less time (which is already a trend now due to automation). I think the whole economy would be changed along with the education system.

Also life long learning is a trend (at least in Europe) and I can imagine that being amplified.

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Depends on the tech.

VR + weak AI : An immersive visualization that goes at the speed you need.

brain implants : Learning even faster, things you haven't learned yet still a thought away.

strong AI : Humans are looked after and many do very little learning. People focus on play.

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