Future tech

How lifelong training can help save human jobs from robots in the tech age

Andrew Sheng says education technology, or edtech, is the best defence against worker redundancy in this age of accelerating new knowledge and the ‘open talent economy’, as traditional education falls short

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 August, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 August, 2017, 6:28pm

Last week, my elder brother made a remark that shook my understanding of education: “I learn today more from YouTube than I have learnt all my life.”

The digital economy has arrived. My generation thought a good degree ensured a good job. But what use is formal education if Silicon Valley is no longer hiring on the basis of stellar Ivy League CVs, but on whether the jobseeker has written an app before or failed in the last start-up? Why invest a quarter of a million dollars on formal education, if a child can code and sell an app at 12 years old? The way new knowledge is accelerating, half the things a college student learns would be obsolete by the time they graduate.

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The biggest disruption of the digital economy relates to jobs and education. Karl Marx was not wrong in using the labour theory of value in understanding capital. But what the knowledge economy has done is digitised production, distribution and consumption into its micro-components, using artificial intelligence and machines.

Technology generates consumer surplus, but also a huge job deficit

A 2013 Deloitte review of the “open talent economy” explained it well. In the past, companies had to put jobs on their balance sheet, hiring the worker for almost life and providing for their pensions. The open talent economy can outsource jobs through the internet, so that 16 per cent of US jobs are now held by temporary workers or freelancers, up from 10 per cent a decade ago. The internet is the future employer and income generator.

What Uber and Airbnb have done is converted idle capacity in cars and housing to commercial value. But the biggest idle or underutilised capacity is human talent. Many people have jobs that use less than 1 per cent of their brainpower. Such mechanical jobs deserve to be robotised. But we also need a mindset change.

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A recent Economist article rightly pointed out that, “When education fails to keep pace with technology, the result is inequality”. While jobs for hi-tech fields are increasing, more than half of the present jobs can be completely robotised. Technology generates consumer surplus, but also a huge job deficit.

Consequently, advancing technology forces lifelong learning. Just as fintech has disintermediated the banking industry by making payments faster and cheaper, “edtech”, or education technology, will disintermediate traditional education.

We have to admit that most school teachers are less adept at mobile technology than their students. Most university professors are still teaching courses that are rapidly going out of date, since their students can assess MOOC (massive open online courses) from the top universities, given by cutting-edge thought leaders. It is not surprising that the top start-ups have people who did not even graduate.

What will we do after robots have taken over?

In start-ups, they are mixing and learning daily from people at the frontier of knowledge and technology. What they don’t know they google, or write an app to find the answer. This model is great for the elite few who have access to the knowledge, but not fair to those who have been loyal and competent in the old jobs.

Technology disrupts conventional knowledge, practices and business models

Bureaucratic jobs used to last for those who were loyal, competent and had high integrity. In this age, where a 21-year-old can be a start-up billionaire, no aspiring civil servant will be loyal for life. By definition, bureaucratic jobs become less and less competent over time, because technology disrupts conventional knowledge, practices and business models.

How can a bureaucrat regulate markets that they do not understand? Those who know markets are corruptible, and those who don’t are incompetent. We therefore need edtech to retrain our workers, so that they are under continual education. Rethinking education as a lifelong skills-building process relates not just to the formal schooling and university levels, but every stage of an individual career.

There are two points in this spectrum. A Brookings study on the Arab world said “students in the region do not learn what we call 21st-century skills like working in teams, problem-solving, being innovative, risk-taking. So there is a problem with the curriculum that is too traditional, that is too much based on rote learning”. At the other end, Singapore has launched a “SkillsFuture” initiative, giving vouchers to pay for courses whose curriculum are designed by employers.

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Throughout East Asia, we have more and more savings invested in negative or low yield debt, whereas we should be truly investing in the area with the highest return – our own human talent. This is not about just the young, but every decent worker who has contributed to society in their jobs, which are rapidly becoming obsolete through no fault of theirs.

It was the neglect of the free market liberal elite that gave rise to populist anger, frustration and revolt. Doing nothing is not an option. Time to truly rethink edtech.

Andrew Sheng is distinguished fellow of Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong