The Role of Education in a Robotic World

Originally published on 4th May 2017 at TheEducator.com

It wasn’t long ago that the thought of robots taking employee’s jobs was the stuff of science fiction, but as the pace of technological advancement continues to accelerate, we are now on the verge of the largest economic transformation in recorded history, with robots set to become a common feature of the modern working environment.

When this generation of student graduates they will enter working environments where robotic technology is commonplace and schools need to ensure they are equipping students with the skills to survive in this ‘brave new world’.

IDC’s FutureScape: Worldwide Robotics 2017 Predictions is one of many reports which concludes that automated technologies will jeopardize the livelihoods of millions of people. The latest report from PwC comes to similar conclusions and indicates that 38 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of automation. The outlook for the UK isn’t much better with 30 percent of jobs at risk, while in Germany 35 percent of jobs could be lost and Japan could lose about 21 percent of jobs.

recent study by economists from MIT and Boston University concluded that each additional robot reduced employment by 3-6 workers. To ensure funds are available to support workers who have lost work due to automation, Bill Gates, has argued that there needs to be a tax on robots.

It appears the public is becoming increasingly aware that robots will play a larger role in the workplace of the future, although the implications of this monumental shift do not seem to be acknowledged, In America over 65% of employees believe that robots will perform most of the work currently done by humans,  however only 20% of these individuals believe their own jobs are threatened.

This blind confidence that jobs will remain safe is a falsehood that will cause great disruption unless individuals begin to realise that every commercial sector will be affected by robots.

Skilled and semiskilled labour has long been threatened by automation, and new robots such as – Hadrian X, which can lay 1,000 standard bricks in one hour – Tally, which is able to check stock, order stock and stack supermarket shelves during opening hours – and DeLaval International’s new cow-milking robot,  threaten thousands of jobs which were previously considered safe.

This robotic revolution which will impact developed countries with high labour costs long before developing nations with low labour costs will be affected, is inevitable and so preparing for a workplace in which robots are commonplace is essential.

Instead of fighting the progress of technology, like the luddites attempted to do in the 19th Century, experts say we need to find a way to coexist with our robotic coworkers. Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby outlined an approach with five strategies for adapting to life in the robotic age – step up, step aside, step in, step narrowly, step forward.

Step up – Develop your own knowledge and skills to remain competitive.

In the coming years individuals with specialist skills and expertise will be less likely to find their employment threatened by automation.

As such the emphasis is on personal development, as Jing Bing Zhang, Research Director and author of IDC’s FutureScape: Worldwide Robotics 2017 Predictions explains, “Automation and robotics will definitely impact lower-skilled people, which is unfortunate. I think the only way for them to move up or adapt to this change is not to hope that the government will protect their jobs from technology, but look for ways to retrain themselves. No one can expect to do the same thing for life. That’s just not the case anymore.”

Step aside – Choose a career which required complex human skills.

Accepting that automation will take away millions of jobs, it is advisable to consider working in sectors which require specific human skills that robots cannot easily replicate, such as empathy.

Occupations like counselling, therapy, caring, nursing, policing, teaching and leadership will remain unthreatened by automation for decades to come for these reasons.

Creativity is another complex human skill which robots will struggle to replicate as

Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, explained in an interview with NPR,  “While robots may be capable of incremental creativity, they cannot think outside the box. Incremental creativity is just improving on something, but radical creativity is thinking something up.”

Therefore, it is essential that schools provide opportunities for students to develop creativity.

Step in – Develop the necessary skills to monitor and programme technology.

Regardless of how many robots are created, they will still need tech savvy individuals to monitor, programme, fix and adjust their work.

Computer engineering will be in hugely important occupation for decades to come. Already, developed nations desperately need more individuals with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. This has spurred the growth in STEM education across Europe and North America, with Barack Obama’s administration, championing STEM education and setting targets to train 100,000 new STEM teachers by the end of the decade.

Step narrowly  find a specialty that wouldn’t be economical to automate.

It’s important to remember that the development of robots in the workplace is being done for financial gain, to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Individuals with skills and expertise in niche areas will remain unaffected by the rise of the robotic workforce far longer than individuals with general skills.

Step forward – develop the next generation of software, applications or AI.

Tech savvy individuals who are able to think outside the box will be able to develop the next generation of technological solutions to overcome the challenges of life in the 21st Century. These entrepreneurs will greatly benefit from the modern working environment, in the same way that the developers of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Uber have done.

However, to ensure this generation of students has the skills to become successful entrepreneurs, it is important that schools expose young people to the notion of entrepreneurship and self-employment. This can be done in schools by setting students problem solving projects to tackle in groups. These types of student-led assignments can introduce students to the concept of entrepreneurship and help them develop the communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills essential for all successful entrepreneurs.

The Importance of Education

A common thread running through all these approaches for succeeding in the workplace of the future, is education. Education is essential to equip students, and adults, with skills to successfully navigate this new landscape.

For children to be successfully prepared for the workplace of tomorrow, they must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. Therefore, today’s learners have to become proficient with technology and acquire the 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration and communication.

Unfortunately, too many educational institutions remain attached to the 19th Century school model which was designed to produce the workforce required by factories, and where children were required to be submissive and conformist. With Britain’s current, nostalgic government, who are more concerned with re-establishing the presence of Grammar Schools, the country remains stuck with the social engineering of an industrial workforce for a post-industrial era.

As such, the responsibility of preparing today’s students for this complex future falls to the humble classroom teacher.

By developing lessons which engage learners in collaborative work and providing learning environments which allow students to learn naturally through trial and error, and play-based practice, learners will develop traits such as flexibility, resilience and adaptability which they will need to succeed in the new robotic era.

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