Can your students compete will robots in the 21st century?

The rise of artificial intelligence has been met with fear in many quarters. Algorithms, machine-learning and robotics are seen as a threat to jobs around the world. In January 2017, McKinsey & Company reported that 30% of tasks in 60% of occupations may be computerized in the foreseeable future[1]. Elsewhere, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England has suggested that robots could take over around 95 million jobs in the UK and US alone. In this context, the already deep challenges facing educators in preparing young people for the work seem vast.

The truth is, while many tasks are being simplified and automated, this is not at all a new phenomenon. The tendency of innovation has always been to offload as many tasks as possible onto the gadgets around us in a bid to make production cheaper, quicker and more accurate. However, as a researcher from the Oxford Martin School argues, so far these technologies have primarily been labour-augmenting[2]. This means that the creation of new technologies has served to create new, more skilled roles and freed up employee time for more complex tasks[3]. While this is true, it I quite clear that the fear surrounding the rise of robotics comes from somewhere legitimate, and not simply too many films announcing the arrival of new robot overlords!

In reality, most companies are investing heavily in the creation of new robotic technologies as a means of cutting labour costs in the medium to long term. While that sounds like heavy job losses in multiple industries, the situation is not as dire as it first appears. Many in the field of education, including Debate Mate, foresaw this turn and have responded with new practices targeted at enabling students to compete in these challenging circumstances.

The only way to empower our students to thrive in the 21st Century world of work is to teach their minds to do what robots cannot! While robots can take our algorithms and perform them at great speed, they can’t and are unlikely to ever be able to innovate – to create new space for themselves in industry. It is this capacity, driven by entrepreneurial spirit that will enable students to not only survive but excel in the robot age.

How do we get there? In short, rote learning as an end point for education must go out the window. Over many years, educators have developed excellent pedagogical tools for helping students to memorise large quantities of information – that is no longer enough. We must be teaching our students how to create new things with the information they are given, encouraging them to reformulate and transform knowledge into original and creative thought. The focus of education must therefore shift toward creating independent thinkers from the very youngest age groups. George Molyneux points out that “in the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled”, but that future is looming ever close, and possibly already here, so this is where our focus should be.