Education in the 'Fourth Wave' of Science-Driven Economic Advancement

Michio Kaku — theoretical physicist, author and pop science celebrity — has an emphatic message for educators: We are rapidly entering what he terms the "fourth-wave" of scientific advancement, and it's the duty of educators to prepare young people to survive and thrive in the radically different milieu that portends.

By Kaku's reckoning, science is the engine of economic prosperity and has been for hundreds of years. Steam power ushered in the first wave of prosperity enabled by scientific advancements that had a direct impact on the way we live. The harnessing of electricity brought the second wave. The third wave, the one in which we live now, is powered by computers and communication. Each of these waves has brought revolutionary changes to the way humanity lives and interacts. And that will continue into the fourth wave, one driven by nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

Michio Kaku addressing educators at the ISTE 2016 conference

Michio Kaku discusses the previous waves of scientific advancement and their effects on economic prosperity.

That's all well and great. But are we, asked Kaku, speaking before thousands of educators, preparing young people for that future?

"We have to prepare young people for the challenge of the future," Kaku said in his opening keynote address at last week's ISTE 2016 conference in Denver. "Because where do jobs come from? Jobs come from science, from the steam revolution to the electric revolution to the high-tech revolution of today to tomorrow when we have artificial intelligence, biotech and nanotechnology."

Kaku has not had particularly flattering things to say about education in the past. In at least one presentation, he referred to the American education system as "the worst educational system known to science." In his keynote address at ISTE, he moderated his tone for the most part but relayed an anecdote he attributed to one of his professors:

"One professor once told me that our educational system is excellent in terms of preparing students to live in the world of 1950. The only problem is, we don't live in 1950 anymore. That's why we have to undergo a revolution in the way we view education."

That urgency will become even more pronounced as we head toward the fourth wave, as all aspects of civilized life become "digitalized" the way music and other media have become digitalized over the last couple decades. Humans will have access to technologies on a scale never before envisioned, with the wealth of human knowledge not just in their fingertips, but in their prosthetics — Internet-connected contact lenses, for example, that can display data at the blink of an eye.

"The Internet will be everywhere and nowhere; the Library of Congress [will be accessible] by blinking," Kaku said. "This means that in the future education will gradually be changed. Instead of memorizing the periodic chart of elements, students will simply blink and see the periodic chart, right there in their glasses, their wrist watch or in their contact lens. This means that educators are going to have to stress concepts — principles — rather than the drudgery of memorization. Students are going to have to learn to use this information, not simply memorize it. For example, instead of memorizing all the wars of the past and the dates of all the wars in the past, you just will get them by blinking. You have to understand what the wars mean, the conditions that started the war, the aftereffects of the war. So concepts, principles, have to be stressed, rather than the drudgery of simply memorizing facts and figures. This is called augmented reality, when computer information is superimposed upon reality."

And that's where educators come in. The reasoning goes something like this: Although there will be a "perfect" and direct transfer of information to everyone with or without educators, students will still need to come to class to benefit from the wisdom and experience of their teachers.

"So what about 'e-courses' and 'cybereducation?'" he asked. "Will we all simply stay home and have all these lectures beamed into our home? The answer is no. You see, at Stanford and MIT, they have some of their graduate courses on the Internet. What is the drop-out rate on some of these courses? It approaches 90 percent. Why is that? Because students have no mentor. They have no one to talk to, no one to grade their homework; they have no one to share information with and do problem sets together, no one to give them career guidance. And so see cybereducation and e-courses as an aid, as an aid rather than a replacement. For example, a hammer is not going to replace a human. A hammer is great. It accelerates and enhances your ability, but it does not replace a human. In the same way, e-courses only go so far."

He continued: "So in the future, there's going to be a balance, a balance between 'e-instruction' and mentoring. And teachers, more and more, will be in the business of mentoring [and] personal experience because you cannot get that on the Internet."

Those aspects of "mentoring" and "career guidance" are especially important to Kaku, who said that teachers must push students to where the jobs will be in the future. (He said that medicine, in particular, is where those jobs will be.)

So what are the implications for education? "The job market will be turned upside-down. And ... as an educator, you have to prepare students, not to live in the world of 1950.... Jobs of the future will require creativity, will require imagination, experience. We're talking about the digitalization of life."

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 29-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEDavidNagel (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).