What Skills Count?

Frank Levy and Richard Murnane wrote a book called The New Division of Labor in 2004: I only caught up with it last week. But it is one of those which gets better with time: It did not appear outdated, but rather more relevant, because the changes Levy and Murnane were predicting are already here and are driving the public debate.

One could treat this book as a treatise in Labour Economics and perhaps it does get treated like that. This is a tragedy, because this seems very much a book about education too. Surely, educators are somewhat weary of being lectured by the economists about education, and usually treat all the economic treatise about education with suspicion. And, as I figured out over the last year or so, this is not merely about the disciplinary difference: The disdain is political - economists are expected to focus on the 'wrong outcome', indeed economic value - and most educators tend to see this not just as an unwelcome encroachment of their territory, but a wholly subversive attempt to change the conversation.

However, this book concerns itself with a question that may be of interest to even the die-hard purists: Which jobs humans do better than computers? Even though the book was written a decade ago, Levy and Murnane were prescient, and the revolutionary changes in computing power have not made their observations outdated: The skills they highlighted, Expert Thinking and Complex Communication, still remain in human domain and are likely to remain there. Looking closely, this should warm the educators' hearts: Levy and Murnane were arguing about those 'woolly' things that we try to teach in 'Liberal Arts' (which is humanities and pure sciences) are the ones which count more than all those 'applied' skills we get so hung up about these days.

Expert Thinking, argues the authors, that goes beyond mere pattern recognition is extremely difficult for computers. Computers can possibly generate useful output given a clear input. But if the input is not clear, which is often the case in dealing with complex human problems, where people tend to 'forget', 'hold back', or 'make mistakes', input is never clear.  And, besides, computers may find it extremely difficult to improvise, particularly when a problem is encountered for the first time: They can indeed come up with millions of alternatives within a matter of a second, something clearly beyond the capability of a human brain, but it would take an expert in most cases to make a judgement call. 

Complex communication deals with similar problem sets, but in a different way. This time, humans are also the recipients of the output, which they will process as inputs for their behaviour. Indeed, the standard outputs of the computerised process may generate extremely variable behaviour among the recipients. And, this is not just about body language and tone of voice, which the computers are catching up on: This is rather about the context and culture, and above all, about trust and empathy. Communication is indeed a two-way process and there could be few rules to show empathy and becoming trustworthy, other than doing those things sincerely. It remains difficult to write a code to teach a computer sincerity.

Indeed, these observations, as I said before, sound even more valid today than they were in 2004. We now have Google Cars driving around in California and Warren Buffett seriously discussing that they may destroy the auto insurance industry in the next decade. There are more voice-activated systems dealing with customer service and bots doing sales chats online than ever. Kasparov's defeat by Deep Blue in 1997 has now been bested by Watson winning Jeopardy, but not just that: Last week, we learnt that Watson can now present an argument (read here). In summary, the developments the authors were talking about in 2004, are now getting to the capability levels that may start replacing human labour.

We can treat these developments with alarm, noting the shrinkage of the human domain, or with celebration of human ingenuity, as these things may be seen as a realisation of human imagination: Someone wrote these events down as Science Fiction first. And, indeed, Sci-Fi, the blend of expert thinking about what's possible, and complex communication, making it understandable and desirable, remains firmly in human territory. In fact, Sci-Fi demonstrates the third ability where humans may trump computers: Meta-cognition, or thinking about how to think. Imagining what might be comes with breaking down the barriers, which starts with why it is this way: Computerisation has gone from the level of the thermostats which turning down the heaters when the room reaches a certain temperature to asking why the heater should be turned down at all and adjusting itself with the outside temperature and number of people in the room, but it may still remain limited to turning the heater down rather than opening the window, even it had the capacity to do so, because that will involve judgements and 'mood', the domain of meta-cognition.

If the educators ignore this book as yet another economics treatise, it will be a tragedy for another reason: In this, they could find some of the strongest arguments against the current thinking about For-Profit driven educational expansion. The authors closely examine two very successful corporate learning programmes, Basic Blue for IBM Managers and CISCO Networking Academies for schools, and how a human-computer combination is driving the agenda. However, they also explore why these companies are doing what they are doing, and come to the expected conclusion that private money will almost always be directed to the areas of immediate pay-off. This, the authors argue, is limiting at a time when we need to change our education systems to create capabilities for the future (which is almost present now), and argues for a public role in this new kind of education. 

Since 2004, however, it is the opposite argument which has gained ground. The educators have been told to tie themselves down ever more closely with the employers. Governments all over the world saw private investment as the panacea for education problem, and more or less started giving a free hand to For-Profit operators both in schools and in higher education. The role of the community is shrinking, partly because the educators have responded the challenge posed by technology with denial and disdain. And, more and more money has been poured into training for skills and abilities which will be redundant sooner. Given this, this 2004 book has become more and more relevant. 


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