Automation Changing the Face of Education

 
 

Brían Donnelly examines whether we can expect to be taught by robot lecturers.


AUTOMATION is the bugbear of the 21st Century; by distorting and reshaping the world’s labour market, the trend of replacing human workers with robots and automatic processes has been blamed for the rise of radical fringe groups and those who oppose globalisation, as well the eradication of past and potential future jobs.  

Miso Robotics, a robotics firm specialising in kitchen automation, sits in Pasadena, California, and is the creator of Flippy, a delightful burger-flipping kitchen assistant. With built-in infrared imaging capable of determining the exact temperature on the surface of a beef burger, Flippy is, through no fault of his own, emblematic of the assault on unskilled jobs by automation and its tech company proponents.

While it’s no secret, however, that the jobs most at risk from automation are those which require little or minimal prior training, it is foolish to believe that positions which require a great deal of skill ensure job security, or that higher education of the current standard will prepare you for a job in the future at all.

“Workers whose jobs have been displaced by automation or other forces tend to stop seeking employment rather than upskilling”

In a study appropriately titled ‘Shift Happens’, it was reported that 65% of primary school children will ultimately end up in jobs which do not already exist, which in turn suggests that the current cohort of undergraduates will have to ‘reskill’ themselves at some point in their career as some tasks become automated and their job responsibilities inevitably change.

Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of information technology at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and co-author of ‘The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies’, declared dead the “old days when a person could go to college and never have to study again.”  

However, for many, the prospect of returning to education is difficult, and already, issues have begun to manifest. For example, in the U.S.A., despite steadily rising employment figures, the labour force participation rate has been in near-constant decline since the late 1990s, suggesting that workers whose jobs have been displaced by automation or other forces tend to stop seeking employment rather than upskilling.

“It is estimated that only 20% of education positions are fully automatable”

An oft-quoted 2013 study from Oxford reported that almost half of U.S. jobs were at risk of automation. In light of these figures, it is necessary to fundamentally change the nature of education. This presents an acute, namely, how to educate individuals for a lifetime of additional learning.

What will become of the grand institutions of learning that have grown across the modern world? One can hardly imagine that UCD will become a stomping ground for emotionless androids, at least no more than at present.

Thomas Frey, a ‘futurist’, predicts that by 2030, students will learn from robot teachers, and will be 10 times faster than today. Tailored lessons delivered online will allow students to learn at their own pace and delve into the areas in which they are most interested.

While this may seem fanciful, automation nevertheless presents a great opportunity to reduce the administrative tedium from jobs in the education sector; freeing up time for lecturers to perhaps focus on individual students.

Technology has already had an enormous impact on education, with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) bringing higher education to those who do not have the means or option to pursue it.

Professional services previously considered ‘safe options’, such as accountancy and legal services, may soon be undercut by automation. Though, the predicted trend is that tedious, repetitive tasks will be automated, leaving more time to focus on tasks involving a ‘human element.’

“It was reported that 65% of primary school children will ultimately end up in jobs which do not already exist.”

Education and teaching is no different, and it is estimated by consultancy firm McKinsey that teachers’ roles are unlikely to be replaced by automation entirely. In fact, it is estimated that only 20% of education positions are fully automatable.

As the trivial tasks of administration are removed from the job descriptions from teachers and others, the changing nature of the positions will induce demand for more creative, interpersonal, and entrepreneurial skills.

This is true across all sectors, but for people like Frey, who believes that workers in the future will predominantly be creators and developers, rather than manufacturers, automation will necessitate a workforce and an education system that fosters creativity, and independence.

So, those who sneer ‘well what’s the point of an Arts course?’ may well wish to get more creative, as over half of the respondents to a 2016 survey described their approach to innovation as “accelerated.”

The survey of 138 CEOs from US technology firms, by accountancy behemoth KPMG, revealed that many multinational companies are concerned about product relevancy, as new generations demand non-traditional goods and services.

Many firms’ approach is currently to replace workers with robots, reskill those workers, and redeploy them elsewhere, and so to a large degree, the constant upskilling predicted may have already begun.

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