Off Centre
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AI is coming, are we training our students for a world where robots work for free?

The advance of robots has profound implications for what people aspire to, not least in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 11:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 12:08pm

According to research, levels of happiness among Hong Kong schoolchildren have plummeted to new lows. Homework and extra lessons are eating into students’ time for sleep and exercise and are held to be their chief source of distress. The findings follow a spate of recent suicides that have made the mental well-being of young people an especially vexed issue. It is all very alarming – but don’t expect to see attitudes changing any time soon. The educational stakes are just too high.

In a competitive society, the imperative not to set one’s children at any disadvantage is an understandable one. A minimalist definition of aspiration might be the desire for your loved ones not to have to end up working until they drop.

What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

What, though, if everything we thought we knew about getting ahead, acquiring knowledge and expertise and securing an attractive career was being shaken up? What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

At some point in the present decade, we entered an age of drones, 3D printing, robots and artificial intelligence. Such marvels, it is a fair bet, will eliminate millions of low-skilled and unskilled jobs involving everyday tasks from cleaning and washing up to driving vans, sorting mail and serving food. In the United States alone, the predicted wave will make the offshoring of the country’s manufacturing in recent years look like small beer. Skilled jobs will be at risk, too, though.

Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, said recently on BBC radio: “In the industrial age we automated a lot of physical work, the work of our muscles. In the new machine age, we’re doing the same things for mental work. This is having as big an impact on humanity as the industrial revolution did.” Machines could end up doing the jobs of surgeons, teachers, firefighters, entertainers – even, one imagines, bankers.

Beyond that, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all warned about an existential threat arising when super-intelligent computers become capable of designing and building machines smarter than themselves – a moment that is being referred to as “the singularity” and which experts believe will arrive in about 40 years.

If this forecast becomes reality, what use the study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects then to mere mortals? Why bother learning about the nature of an exponential function, or how to write source code? (Note: these questions will be even more redundant if the machines opt to murder us all in our beds, Terminator-style)

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A more medium-term outlook is that many of us will be looking for new forms of employment. We might also be forced to reconsider what will benefit our children to learn. For Brynjolfsson, that means focusing on things that humans do well and machines don’t, or don’t yet: “creative” things like coaching football teams, or writing novels, or conceiving of new products and services.

The problem with the last of these, I hear you object (you’re objecting to the first two as well, on account of there being a finite number of football teams and already enough crap novels? Fair enough) is that if machines are doing everything workers used to, then there will be no workers / consumers left to buy the things smarty-pants entrepreneurial people are producing. This is to presume that without proper work we’d most of us be poor, though. In fact, in a world where machines make and do everything, the cost of buying stuff should also nosedive, meaning that we can survive on very little, helped along by governments paying some kind of “living wage”.

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That’s the rosy, utopian version of a workless future enabled by A.I. in which we all become part of one big leisure class, at liberty to create or to volunteer, or simply to exist. No doubt people in every century in history have felt like they were at the end of something that went before, but the notion of the end of work feels a bit more significant than the end of, say, witch-burning, or rock ‘n’ roll, or communism, or even religion. Freed to be artists and idlers, perhaps we’d have more time to think about human values, and about how they might survive the singularity. Perhaps we’d gain self-worth entirely from sources other than our careers. Either way, you would hope we’d be less inclined to overload the young with tests and homework.