Skills and Automation

If my work is about creating an education offering ready for the 21st century, two forces count the most - Globalisation and Automation. The question how automation alters the educational requirements of a common citizen and average worker keeps popping up in my engagements, conversations and work. I spend a great deal of time traveling and talking to people how education must change, how we must look for a different set of skills than the ones we hitherto talked about, and how we must get ready for a tipping point globally when the economic and social structures change drastically under the weight of these two forces.

In this context, it is important to think how this change may look like. For this post, I intend to focus on automation, the ubiquity of intelligent machines and how that may alter the nature of skills, and leave globalisation for another day. I have indeed made several blog posts about this in the past - it is indeed central to what I have been doing for several years now - and all this, in summary, look like an ongoing attempt to reconcile my natural enthusiasm about technological progress with my concerns about what it means for everyone. 

We have been at similar points in history, Industrial Revolution being the most obvious example, when automation changed the way of work and of arranging society. We are in the Second Machine Age, as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson claim, and the middle class is in serious trouble. While the policy-makers and the economists are celebrating consumption growth through an enormous monetary expansion, the underlying middle class jobs, careers and incomes have stagnated. 47% of the professions we have today are in the risk of obsolescence, warned Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University (See the earlier post). This makes most of our current models, of organising our society and politics, and our lives, at risk. Indeed, our education systems are at risk as it stands squarely on the promises of middle class jobs and incomes, particularly so in developing countries (See my note titled The Sleepwalkers). The breakdown that we see in different parts of the world, but particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, has direct correlation with this breakdown of the middle class proposition, partly due to automation (and partly due to the other forces of globalisation).

The most reassuring thing one could say, when faced with the concerns about the disappearance of the Middle Classes, is that we have been here before and our concerns have been proved wrong. The Economist points to great expansion of education during and immediately after the industrial revolution, gradual upskilling of labour and indeed the creation of the middle class as a result. There is even a name for the concerns about Technological Unemployment (a term coined by Lord Keynes, who saw it as a future event) - the lump of labour fallacy! The broad point here is that automation creates its own kind of occupations, and with education, todays pilots will become the drone operators for tomorrow. It is a mistake to be overtly concerned about the loss of half of our jobs, which will surely happen, because there will be jobs and occupational categories which will emerge. Who could predict that we would need SEO Experts and Data Scientists today?

This rather optimistic thinking is ingrained in all I say and do. The point that we need a different kind of education, with emphasis on independent thinking, creativity and imagination, is somewhat self-evident. A number of educators and thinkers, Howard Gardner among them, have been making the point for a number of years. The playbook seems simple - we are facing an unprecedented level of automation and middle class jobs and careers are changing, and hence, one must educate oneself differently, be more entrepreneurial, creative and imaginative, and be ready for the future.

This model works, up to a point. Technological progress is not value-neutral though. What gets made and what does not depend on the choices people make. The people in question here are those very few people who control most of our economic resources in the very unequal societies we have built. For them, the intelligent machines are not just about enhancing human capability, which the techno-utopians would love to see, but about replacing human labour. It is so because creating new capabilities may alter the nature of power, but replacing the need of human labour helps to perpetuate it. The aims of technological progress may not be building better lives, but more power in the hands of a few. We have enough evidence to worry that this is indeed the case. This would call for a different kind of education.

This is because technological progress in the hands of the few would not create the need for higher level skills, but would aim to deskill most of the population. Nicholas Carr makes this argument brilliantly in his new book, The Glass Cage, where he cites the work done by Harvard Business School Professor, James Bright, who studied the effect of automation on skills. Professor Bright found that all automation is not the same, and while the skill requirements tend to increase in the initial phases of automation (think Industrial Revolution, universal education and making of the industrial middle class), it decreases with advanced automation when the machines can own the processes. Such a thing may indeed be underway currently, partially because of skewed preferences about what we want technology to do for us. Michael Spence, the Nobel Laureate Economist, writing with Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, sees the emergence of a Superstar Economy, where a few earn the most, with the rest increasingly left to do nothing. This indeed seems real. Combine this with the stigmatisation of the working class (that they are benefit scroungers) and one starts to see the slippery slope to the end of democracy and as some observers call it, The Dictatorship of 1%.

The education one needs, therefore, is not just about creativity and independent thinking, but there needs to be more. It needs to include a certain level of political and social consciousness, a democratic commitment and the ability to think about the future. All the talk we have about 21st century education tends to exclude these things, because they are truly disruptive to the homogeneous idea of technological progress we have bought into. That we need to make value judgements about the priorities of technological progress has been discreetly overlooked, and instead, our education systems have become a desperate attempt to create a few successes when the overall democratic consensus is sinking. However, for technological progress to be sustainable, and really beneficial to all (instead of just being of benefit to a few with money), one needs this democratic imagination that can reconcile human needs with technological possibility.


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