About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

The Future of Education in a World of Robots

Published in The Edge Malaysia, April 2017.

Last weekend, I went back to my parents’ hometown of Segamat, Johor for the family’s annual Ceng Beng gathering. My godson Edward, aged 7, lives in Segamat with his parents and, naturally, attends school there. Upon arriving in Segamat on Saturday evening, I was told that he was still at a class. “What class?” I asked. Turns out, it was Lego Robotics.

I won’t lie, I was super surprised (and, in honesty, super impressed) that, firstly, there were classes on Lego Robotics on a weekend in Segamat and, secondly, that these classes catered as well to children of such a young age. Indeed, the classes cater to students of all ages, with the robotics getting more advanced as the children grew older. If Robotics tuition classes are a thing even in a relatively smaller town like Segamat, the age of robots is truly upon us.

This is no surprise. Machines have been a key ingredient to the rise (and fall) of nations. The creation of the Turing Machine in the 1940s marked a turning point in the march of the machines by introducing arguably the world’s earliest form of machine intelligence. The growth of artificial intelligence has been exponential since then, with robots now forming a pervasive part of modern life, playing prominent roles in manufacturing, household chores, construction, even coffee-making and, well, adult entertainment.

While robots have increased productivity, freed up spare time and, in some cases, provided entertainment and pleasure for humans, a common concern with regards to robots is that they will replace humans in the workplace. The empirical evidence in economic literature suggests as such. A recent working paper by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo finds that in the United States, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment to population ratio by about 0.18-0.34 percentage points. Larry Katz, an Economics professor at Harvard, agrees, stating that, when it comes to job loss, “Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important [than trade] – it’s not even close.”

If that’s the past, what about the future? We can presume that as machine intelligence continues to grow exponentially, especially when it can learn on its own, the threat of machines to human jobs is more and more imminent. According to a report from the Oxford Martin School, the OECD estimates that approximately 57% of jobs were susceptible to automation across the world. Furthermore, it is not just the low-skilled jobs that will get replaced. From the same study, among the top 10 jobs most at risk of being replaced by automation include Mathematical Technicians, Tax Preparers, and Insurance Underwriters.

To stem the tide of automation, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has suggested that robots who steal the jobs of humans should pay income taxes. Indeed, in a recent Project Syndicate article (published in last week’s edition of the Edge Weekly), Yale economist Robert Shiller argues that, “A moderate tax on robots, even a temporary tax that merely slows the adoption of disruptive technology, seems a natural component of a policy…” The rage against the machine is still open to debate, but perhaps one angle that Malaysia should consider looking at is that of the future of education in a world of robots.

This issue is particularly salient given the finding in Bank Negara’s recent annual report that the youth unemployment rate in Malaysia reached 10.7% in 2015, more than three times the national unemployment rate of 3.1%. To some extent, this should not be that surprising. In all countries, the youth unemployment rate is always some multiple of the nationwide unemployment rate; after all, young people have less experience, less bargaining power at firms and, particularly in a country with such high power distance as Malaysia, less essential.

At the same time, this trend is only likely to worsen as time goes on as the machines rage on. Thus, a key question for education policymakers in Malaysia is what type of education prepares students for a future of robots? Sure, stuff like critical thinking and learning how to learn matters, but against the tidal wave that is machine learning, these skills may be less useful. We should focus on such skillsets, perhaps even double down on them to ensure generations of thinkers rather than rote memorisation experts, but machine learning via neural networks may eventually eclipse humanity’s ability to reason and learn.

I am no education policy expert, but perhaps a good starting point is to look at the least susceptible jobs to automation in the Oxford Martin report I mentioned above, and figure out what the similarities in those jobs are. According to the report, the jobs that are least likely to be replaced by automation include mental health workers, social workers, doctors, psychologists and teachers. This is instructive. The common denominator between these jobs is a strong relationship with people or rather, jobs that require a deep sense of humanity.

Consider an individual facing mental health issues who would like to talk to a therapist. It is far more likely that that individual would prefer talking to a real human being than to a machine, even if that machine’s voice sounded like Scarlett Johansson’s voice in “Her.” Similarly, patients who are hospitalised would likely much prefer doctors with great bedside manners; artificial intelligence would perform the diagnosis, but breaking the news is probably still best left to a human doctor. Another stark observation of the jobs above is that, with the exception of doctors, the majority of those jobs are not well-paid jobs. The jobs that require the most humanity are also among the least valued in the labour market. We must have messed up somewhere along the way.

Thus, what an education policy in an age of robots really comes down to is a policy that focuses on the greatest strength and advantage of humans over robots, which is the ability to be human. This means education that builds empathy, kindness, understanding and acceptance of others, however different they may be to us. I doubt that our education system and, in fairness, most education systems around the world are set up to deliver such outcomes, perhaps reflected in the fact that despite a more inter-connected world, there is still so much hate for the “other.” As the machine rages on, it is perhaps time to completely revolutionise our education system to train humans to be, well, human.

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