What if this were really true?

Image source: Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution created a huge urban proletariat, and socialism spread because no other creed managed to answer the unprecedented needs, hopes and fears of this new working class. Liberalism eventually defeated socialism only by adopting the best parts of the socialist program. In the 21st century we might witness the creation of a massive new un-working class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This “useless class” will not merely be unemployed — it will be unemployable.

This morning I spent some time reading and reflecting on a challenging article I came across by Yuval Noah Harari titled “The Rise of the Useless Class” in which he asserts: “just as mass industrialization created the working class, the AI revolution will create a new un-working class” – a group he calls the ‘useless class’.

This is challenging stuff, and not entirely palatable for those of us who are ‘long in the tooth’ and concerned now about the future for our kids and grandkids. The central tenet of Harari’s thesis is that what we do as humans is the product of organic algorithms (occurring in our brains and consciousness), and that eventually these can, and will be replaced by the non-organic algorithms of machines and artificial intelligence.

Of course, Harari isn’t the only person speaking about such change. In 2015 Darrell West of the Brookings Institute wrote about the impact of emerging technologies on employment and public policy in which he cites computerized algorithms and artificial intelligence as key influencers of this change. West argues as one of the solutions we should consider the establishment of activity accounts for lifetime learning and job retraining.

Almost daily we see reference to this sort of thinking and the impact it is having on a changing job market. In New Zealand we are seeing robots being used increasingly in a range of industries, including areas not previously considered such as on dairy farms. And this change is occurring rapidly, as illustrated in a recent Bloomberg article suggesting economists may be underestimating how fast robots are coming. A July 2016 report from Mckinsey predicts that 45% of all jobs in the US could be replaced by technology that currently exists – although when asked about this US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doesn’t see it this way, saying that the artificial intelligence revolution and its impact on the US workforce is “not even on our radar screen.”

This is not the first time I’ve felt confronted by bold predictions about the future. Back in the 1970s when I was training to be a teacher we were encouraged to read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, much of which I’ve seen come to pass in my 40 year career. While my peers and I might have read the material, very few of us (myself included) took these predictions as seriously as we might, and soon found ourselves immersed in the culture of schools and teaching of the time, finding little opportunity (or need) to actively pursue new ideas and approaches in our practice. For me that came later in my career!

While I’m sure there will be many others besides Mnuchin who have a similar ‘optimism’ that nothing will change (or if so then very slowly), there are indeed plenty of signs that they indeed are. And if this is the case, then we need to be concerned about how best to prepare ourselves. This is the question that Liam Dann responds to in an excellent article in the NZ Herald titled “how to prepare your kids for the robot revolution“, in which he explores whether they will kill our jobs, and how we can future-proof our children.

Reflecting on it all this morning I find myself asking

What if we were to take this challenge seriously – and I mean, really seriously??

What if all of this talk about robots and artificial intelligence really is true? As Harari points out in the article…

Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly.

In view of this sort of challenge…

  • How might we reconsider our models of school and schooling?
  • How might we reconceptualise our thinking about curriculum and assessment?
  • What about our pedagogical practice – who teaches who and how?
  • What will be the role of teachers – and who will those teachers be?
  • What emphasis needs to be on things like citizenship, ethics and equity – alongside the development of job-ready skills?

These questions have been asked for as long as I’ve been a teacher – but our schools and schooling system remains largely the same as when I started. Sure, there are now more computers being used, a number of walls have been knocked down between classrooms and vogue terms such as learning styles and personalised learning have entered our vocabulary, but for the most part these are what I call first level changes (where the change takes place within accepted boundaries and leaves basic values unexamined and unchanged).

If the challenges presented by Harari and others are really true, then perhaps we need to be actively pushing at the boundaries of existing practice and examining the assumptions that influence first order thinking (second level change). Then we need to push on to develop a deep understanding of alternative world views and ways of doing things, seeking change that is transformative – for both individuals and the whole of society (third level change).

So I ask again….

What if we were to take this challenge seriously – and I mean, really seriously??

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