Are We Preparing Our Kids For Automation?

If robots will take our jobs, then our education system needs to teach our kids how to adapt. Will our children be able to take that step up and get the creative, non-routine jobs they will need? This week's newsletter attempts to answer that.

In last week's newsletter, I discussed automation and how society is adapting to it. Particularly workplace automation, which I argued is going to result in mass unemployment. Others didn't agree. I had an interesting Twitter conversation about this issue with Julia Kirby, the co-author of a book on workplace automation. Julia argued that machines will save us from manual or cognitive heavy lifting, which will enable most people to go up a level in their job. That's a great point, but it begs the question: is our education system - and how we learn in general - preparing us to "go up a level" in our careers?

Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Robots

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, released in January, highlighted some of the skills that job-seekers in 2035 will need. Critical thinking and creativity are two of the skills that will be in demand in 2035, according to the report. Interestingly, the top ten also included Emotional Intelligence at number 6 (it didn't even make the top ten for 2015). Those three skills are all things that humans do better than machines. So are we teaching our children how to use those skills?

There are any number of 'method' schools that try to encourage skills like creativity and critical thinking in kids. Montessori and Pestalozzi are two popular examples. Montessori schools have had a particular influence on the Internet technology industry. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is an alumnus. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page also both went to Montessori schools and benefited from its self-directed learning curriculum. "I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self motivated, questioning what's going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently," Larry Page said about Montessori.

But even in non-method schools, which is the majority of schools, creativity and creative thinking are being taught now. Just look at the variety of things my 14-year old daughter is learning this year in her Digital Technology course: 3D design, 3D printing, robotics, movie animation, and other similarly creative subjects. That's a far cry from the "Hello World" BASIC programming language I learned at the same age! Not to mention, kids these days are born digital natives. They innately know how to use products like tablets and services like Google to learn and explore.

Of course it's not just what our kids are being taught, but how. In a recent Quartz article, edtech entrepreneur Idit Harel wrote that computing should be a core competency in schools - like reading and writing. It's hard to disagree with that, but according to Harel our kids aren't learning the right computing skills. She claims they're being taught to use drag-and-drop coding apps, instead of learning to design programs. Students should be "designing prototypes and models that work for solving real problems, doing critical thinking and analysis, and creative collaboration." It's a compelling argument, when you look at how fast programming languages and computing platforms change these days. So it makes sense to teach "computational thinking" (as Harel calls it), as well as coding and tools.

The Future Of Uber Drivers

It's not just the next generation of workers who will be affected by automation. The current generation of workers will also need to adapt, because workplace automation has already begun. Let's use the other type of automation I discussed last week as an example: driverless cars. What happens to today's Uber drivers when cars get automated - which is likely to happen in the 2020s (and perhaps early in that decade). I asked that very question to Julia Kirby on Twitter and she replied, "Uber drivers did not even exist a few years ago. They were enterprising to become that [so] why should we assume they can't be again?"

It's a fair point. Uber drivers have shown initiative to strike out on their own, in partnership with Uber. They typically own the cars they drive, they set their own schedule and they handle their own expenses (like gas and insurance). Today's Uber drivers had to make the transition from being employees - typically of a taxi company - to being self-employed. Which tens of thousands of them did over the course of a few years. That said, the core competency stayed the same: driving. So what happens when the key skill of an Uber driver - driving a car - is automated? Because that's what will happen. Uber, the multi-billion dollar company, has made no secret of its plan to move to driverless cars. And it's a sensible strategy from Uber, to own a fleet of self-driving cars, because Uber itself is in danger of being automated out of existence - by the blockchain. But back to the drivers...

Uber and Lyft drivers are well aware of the threat of automation to their jobs. In a thought-provoking blog post, rideshare driver Christian Perea suggested that independently owned driverless vehicles are a viable alternative. He argued that some customers will prefer a differentiated service. Wrote Perea: "McDonald’s has not realistically replaced all or even most of our meals right? Lets face it, you like that unique hipster food." He also suggested that perhaps Uber won't want to own a fleet of driverless cars after all, but instead use independently owned driverless cars. Since that is similar to Uber's current model (Uber doesn't own anything, it's just the middleman), that scenario is indeed possible. Perea concluded that "we may lose our job as drivers but could instead become miniature fleet managers."

It remains to be seen whether drivers have a future as independent owner-managers of driverless cars. Personally I think Uber will want to own the fleet, if only because Google, Tesla and others will certainly own competing fleets. But I don't discount the ability of the current generation of Uber drivers to adapt in some way. Perhaps by becoming fleet managers, or maybe some form of human concierge. Think about how travel agents have had to adapt to TripAdvisor and Kayak, by offering personalized treatment and more.

Conclusion

I'm a little more optimistic this week than last week, about humanity's ability to adapt to automation. I don't think we can just assume everything will be ok, as one person insisted to me on Facebook last week. But as the Uber blogger mentioned above demonstrates, human beings are nothing if not resourceful. And sometimes the only way is up.

Image credit: Scientific American