Will coding become a basic life skill? Yes and no, say experts

Almost all experts agree that coding will become nearly as ubiquitous as literacy in the future. But the nature of coding in the future may be very different.

Coding as a life skill
  • Coding is increasingly being taught in high schools, and it's become a desirable skill even outside of the tech industry.
  • Experts argue that coding is becoming the new literacy; a skill so fundamental that everyone should possess it to some degree.
  • However, the nature of coding in the future is likely to be wildly different than it is today.

It's one of the most sought-after skills out there, and for good reason. Learning to program is difficult, despite what advocates of the "Learn to Code" movement may say. Human minds are a confluence of assumptions, biases, and irrational fantasies, and forcing these fickle things to speak in the rigorous language of computer programming takes work. Programming is difficult, but it's also extremely valuable and — increasingly — necessary.

Many believe that just as basic computer skills went from the realm of specialists to a life skill everyone possesses, so too will programming become ubiquitous. Learning to code might become as commonplace as learning to read. Will this really be the case? And if so, what will the programmers of the future look like?

Teaching students to code

In 2016, Gallup and Google partnered together to quantify exactly how prevalent programming classes were in K–12 education. They found that 40 percent of all schools offered at least one coding class, but the truly illuminating indicator was that just a year before, this number was 25 percent. One can only imagine how quickly coding has grown in the years since the 2016 report.

Apple CEO Tim Cook underscored the importance of learning to code during a conversation he had with President Trump at the White House Policy Advisory Board in March of 2019: "We believe strongly that it should be a requirement in the United States for every kid to have coding before they graduate from K–12 and become somewhat proficient at it." The city of Chicago appears to have listened to Cook. Chicago recently made having at least one credit of computer science a high school graduation requirement. Other municipalities and states are likely to follow suit.

There's a very clear trend here. Coding is becoming an increasingly core part of a modern education. It seems to check all the boxes: not only does it train children to think logically and rigorously, its also a skill that will help secure them a lucrative job in the future. Coding is clearly being adopted at a high rate, but how far will this adoption spread?

Will knowing how to code be as common as knowing how to read?

English professor Annette Vee certainly thinks so. In her book, Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing, Vee compares the role of programming in society with the role that literacy has had historically. Vee notes that in the Middle Ages, "Writing was a specialized skill and people became defined by their writing." As time went on, however, literacy became increasingly common and increasingly necessary. "If you couldn't read, you were left out." Vee argues that the computationally illiterate will increasingly have to rely on others to navigate daily life in a way that will seriously hamper their prospects. "If you don't know how to program, you can carry on with a perfectly fine life. But this is going to change soon."

"Programming is too important to be left just to computer science departments," said Vee. "It can be taught effectively outside of computer science. If we assume that those who learn to write need to be English majors, we would be in trouble." This observation is also being reflected in the workplace. The tech industry isn't the only place where coding skills are valuable. Programming is an increasingly desired skill in the healthcare and finance industries, among others.

The impact of low-code platforms and machine learning

While the breadth of programming skills may increase in the future, its depth is likely to decrease. More people will become fluent programmers, but the share of expert programmers probably won't increase to the same degree. That number might even shrink as they become less necessary and as programming tools become more advanced and powerful.

Part of this is due to the rise of low-code platforms. As defined by Forrester Research, low-code platforms "enable rapid delivery of business applications with a minimum of hand-coding and minimal upfront investment in setup, training, and deployment." These are platforms such as Salesforce or AgilePoint that simplify specific technical challenges (such as Salesforce with customer relations) or act as a generic tool for quickly building applications (as is the case with AgilePoint).

Low-code platforms will make it easier for non-experts to contribute to software development in the near future, but they represent part of a larger trend, too. Automation and machine learning are quickly transforming the nature of work, and software development is no exception. An automated future might mean that nobody will really need to know how to program anymore. Google AI researcher Pete Warden believes this change will come quickly. "There will be a long ramp-up as knowledge diffuses through the developer community," wrote Warden in a 2017 blog post, "but in ten years I predict most software jobs won't involve programming."

In order for a machine-learning algorithm to work correctly, it needs access to the right kind of data. An algorithm that automatically identifies people's faces from photographs, for instance, needs to be trained on a dataset where people's faces are tagged, so it can know what to look for. Warden thinks that tasks like this will become the software developer's primary job in the future: "Instead of writing and maintaining intricate, layered tangles of logic, the developer has to become a teacher, a curator of training data and an analyst of results."

Investor and entrepreneur Mark Cuban also believes that this will be the case. He predicts that for this very reason, people who are experts in fields outside of computer science will become indispensable to software development. "Because it's just math and so, whatever we're defining the AI to do, someone's got to know the topic," he said on an episode of Recode Decode. "If you're doing an AI to emulate Shakespeare, somebody better know Shakespeare [...] The coding major who graduates this year probably has better short-term opportunity than the liberal arts major that's a Shakespeare expert, but long term, it's like people who learned COBOL or Fortran and thought that was the future and they were going to be covered forever."

Altogether, it looks as though coding will indeed become a basic life skill similar to literacy, but the nature of coding and computer science is also going to change in significant and unpredictable ways. As the need for expertise diminishes due to machine learning, everyone will likely become a novice programmer, familiar with coding just to the extent that it is relevant for their job. Everyone can read and write today, but not everyone can write a best-selling novel or a nuanced critique of Jane Austen. In the future, this relationship will likely hold true for programming as well; the masses will know enough about programming and computer science to make use of flexible, smart, and robust software tools, while a handful of experts will continue to push the field forward.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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