Getting Ready For Automation

Automation sounds like Science Fiction. There is an eerie feeling watching a Humanoid Robot on stage. It's indeed there, all over Facebook, but like the other strange things, it is easy to assume that this is distant, out of the ordinary and not going to come and live next door. The more it is hyped, the easier it becomes to dismiss. Until it arrives, not with a bang but in just everyday-way!

That moment is now, almost. One may dispute how long it will take for technology to become smart enough to replace humans in one specific role or the other, but the indisputable fact is that it would happen. That moment is not lifetimes away: Within our lifetime, and definitely within that of our Children, it is going to get there. Humanities great hope of survival can not be that Moore's Law may not hold. And, besides, it is not just the technology but also the financial will behind automation that will power us into the 'second machine age'. The challenge we should focus on how to deal with this future, rather than try to escape or postpone it.

Education is a part of the answer, and a big part of it. There are two ways Education can and will play a role. First, like it happened during the industrial revolution, expansion of schooling equipped a new generation of workers to take advantage of new technologies and therefore, raised labour force participation and productivity at the same time, unleashing an unprecedented level of prosperity and creating a new and much bigger middle class. Second, education also enabled innovation and enterprise - users of new machines finding new and better ways of using the techniques and discovering new possibilities of business in production, distribution or sales - that leveraged the technological progress and created a sort of positive feedback loop. In summary, education restored human agency and leadership in the face of unprecedented technological progress in last industrial revolution, and may yet do it again.

However, this time it may be different. This is not because the people are not sufficiently aware of the technological change - they are not because it is impossible to fully appreciate radical changes when you live within it - and, in fact, if anything, there are more conversations about technological change now than it ever was in history. Rather, this is because over the last century, Education has become an integral part of the political power structure and the Educational-Political Complex dominate our social lives and ideas. Once we have accepted 'merit' as the only legitimate source of power in a modern society, the idea of 'merit' has been defined, owned and controlled closely: Letting go of the idea of 'merit' and redefining it would seriously upset the power structures that we live within.

So, the Politicians and the Bureaucrats across the world, with a few notable exceptions, want to ignore the educational imperatives for automation. Indeed, they turn up at the conferences and play along the revolutionary possibilities of technology, but for them, this need to remain an elite affair. In the industrial revolution, the technological progress, playing over decades, allowed the emergence of a new kind of politics - Liberal politics - that held the middle ground of embracing technology, globalism, democracy and public education. This created a politics of progress, a sort of an 'abundance' mindset in which education was a necessary corollary, and allowed it to create a model of public education that eventually democratised the possibilities of technical advancement.

But there is nothing similar today: Politics is binary, and defined by historical pessimism of different kinds rather than optimism. Education is a multi-billion dollar business, with mature structures and entrenched interests. The narrative of technology, ring-fenced by intellectual property protection and evolved structures of commercialisation, revolves around brilliant breakthroughs rather than tinkering and adaptation - creating an illusory elitism. While everyone seems to say that education needs to change in the face of the new realities of automation, there is little conversation about what those changes can be or should be, and indeed, politicians and policy-makers remain singularly uninterested in such a conversation. Private sector innovation also remains limited, as everyone seems to buy the elitist narrative of technological progress, and there is little focus on democratisation of the possibilities (except for the furore about inequality, but taxes, rather than education, are seen as the answer).

In context, my little project about creating greater awareness about Automation and Globalisation, focused on a city in the unsung part of the world which is also an industrial wasteland, should be seen. The bigger battle for me is to make the beneficiaries engage in the conversation rather than getting resources for it. For the politicians from that city, automation is a distant drum which the developed world should bother about, and which, they assume, will become their concern only after their own political shelf life has passed. And, yet, this time it is different: The automation would hit those parts of the world that benefited from the globalisation of the 90s first and the hardest, wiping out the jobs and prosperity the current generation has come to take for granted. It is already too late to change through education, one may argue, but such an answer fails to offer an alternative: It is just too late to hope that life as it was would continue. 

The political indifference, though, has the opposite effect on me: I am seeing the urgency of private action even more clearly than I saw before. Instead of limiting our engagement in the face of apathy, I am thinking of expanding the scope of activities. Our initial ideas of being a platform for connection and advisory may need changing if there is no one on the other side looking for connection and advice: It is better to build structures for real education for automation rather than telling people about it.



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