Automation, our students and their next 100 years

By | September 19, 2017

This week saw the release of a Royal Society of the Arts survey of employers which pointed towards a widespread belief that increasing automation in the workplace in the next decade will shrink job opportunities for humans across a range of hitherto untroubled professions.

We should be cautious about accepting this finding as anything other than the aggregation of lots of individuals’ opinions about something which no one knows anything (the future), but even hardened tech-refuseniks will struggle to deny the evidence that computers and robots are increasingly doing the complex things we assumed up until very recently could only be done by a human – driving cars in traffic, for example, or mastering the mind-bending complexities of the ancient game of Go.

The fact that a sizeable subset of UK employers believe that up to 30% of jobs will be automated by 2027 should deeply concern everyone working in the education system, because these are the people making decisions about how these jobs can best be performed – to some extent, they are projecting their own workforce planning into their survey response. Some degree of difficult change is on the way – perhaps less dramatic or slower than predicted by the RSA, but ‘in the post’ nonetheless.

I think there are three levels which this will impact the pupils currently in our schools.

Firstly, those without a good set of qualifications with which to access meaningful employment or Further/ Higher Education will find the market for un- or low-skilled work much less forgiving than that of a generation ago. It’s not hard to see how self-driving cars will remove jobs like taxi or HGV driving – indeed, the latter is already being tested in this country. Fewer and fewer humans will be needed to operate an almost entirely mechanised military of flying and running drones. It is likely that people like me currently in their early (super-early, really) middle-age will spend our twilight years having a proportion of our physical care delivered by non-humans. This is an economic necessity as much as it is a technological prediction.

Secondly, a whole new tranche of previously safe career choices will be impacted by the automation of knowledge-rich domains such as law and medicine. It is already possible to have a lawyer-bot get you out of a parking ticket and it will not be long before a visit to a virtual doctor (who, unlike your GP, is available at your convenience and can instantly draw on vast data sets from other patients to aid diagnosis) becomes the norm and measurably saves lives. This is because effective application of law and medicine has and always will rely on using the very best knowledge storage, retention and analysis resource available to us. Previously this has been highly intelligent and lengthily-trained homo sapiens – now we are approaching the tipping point where the superior resource is artificially intelligent and networked. There will be things about these professions which remain human for a long time yet – the bits of the job involving empathy and interaction with other humans most likely, and for this reason I don’t think that teaching is in imminent danger of being outsourced to Marvin the Paranoid Android. Others (some surprising ones too) would disagree with me.

Finally, there is both an opportunity and a challenge for pupils represented by the likelihood that it will no longer be enough to demonstrate employability by jumping through the various qualifications hoops so familiar to those of us educated in the UK. In a job market where your ability to master a domain of knowledge and apply it to a context is of decreasing value to AI-empowered businesses, GCSEs, ALevels, and even degrees will inevitably be seen as weaker indications of suitability than the soft skills we talk a lot about but never measure… team work, problem solving, creativity, et cetera. How can these things be reliably assessed, demonstrated, proven, defined even? It seems unlikely, at least based on the last 150 years of ‘progress’, that our qualifications system will adapt to reflect the reality of the world of work. Will this leave a space for things like micro-credentials and ePortfolios to play a greater role, perhaps?

In summary, schools are going to have to help this generation of young people cope with several challenges not seen at this scale during earlier Revolutions:

  • The disappearance of safety-net jobs for those who do not find success in traditional routes – the Amazon drone will replace the Tescos delivery driver at some point soon. This makes achieving formal qualifications an essential on-ramp to employability
  • The narrowing of professional domains previously considered target careers for high-fliers – will human doctors, lawyers and accountants become increasingly specialised or research-focused? These careers may offer much less secure, life-long employment than ever before. Competition for entry will be even fiercer
  • The requirement, despite holding a swathe of academic qualifications, to somehow demonstrate one’s adaptability and emotional intelligence before an employer takes a chance on you – this is probably the hardest bit to systemise in an equitable way which doesn’t disadvantage the already disadvantaged

Is this something schools are equipped for? They must become so if they are to serve the best interests of the children they’re educating. We live in interesting times.

 

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