Automation and education: why AI doesn’t have to be a threat

Sharon Baker, co-founder of Mighty Social, talks creativity in education, and how resilience is essential to bridging the skills gap

It is interesting to note that one of the key issues discussed at this year’s World Economic Forum was the displacement of workers brought on by automation. The proposed solutions that are currently on the table range from re-training employees, through to designing a new social contract requiring organisations to factor in the needs of employees whilst maximising shareholder value.

Whilst this sounds like papering over the cracks, there was a more visionary set of CEOs who did a deep dive into the future. Their goal was to better define what needs to be done today to ensure our children’s future is not only sustainable but truly enriching. As they pointed out, children need to be equipped to be relevant to the future workplace and society as a whole.

Some of their key conclusions are that we need to enable our children to cultivate creativity, develop emotional intelligence and learn to build empathy – these are the very skills robots will never be able to replace.

This brought to mind my own education – I opted to study politics which at the time really grabbed my attention – but a twist of fate would have it that a temp job I took one summer led me to discover a love for coding; something that was not remotely on my radar at the time. 

Now I run my own successful edtech business, and from this vantage position I can definitely see we have reached a crucial turning point. In fact, we have actually overtaken this crucial point. And, as a consequence, I feel a strong degree of urgency creeping up.

Our current education system is no longer fit for purpose – it has not been for some time.

Our current education system is no longer fit for purpose – it has not been for some time – but we have been slow to catch up and slower still to acknowledge the major changes that need to occur. 

Now that my two children are going through school I feel we are treading water as we funnel talent into a narrow and restricted neck of an hourglass. For what reason? To prepare them for a world of work? But what exactly does that workforce look like?

What is increasingly evident is that our current approach is inadequate, even for those, such as my children, who will be leaving school in the next decade.

Even the once-reliable trade of pharmacist is on shaky ground. Back in 2011 a new-style pharmacy opened in San Francisco and by the end of its first year trading it had provided two million prescriptions without a single mistake. This high-tech pharmacy owes its success to the specialised algorithms which have taken over. 

Just as streaming annihilated video and music stores, time is running out for cashiers, ticket assistants, even HR specialists – mass interviews are already being conducted in China via AI to hone down the numbers to a handful of likely candidates.

We need to shift our educational mindset to ensure our children develop skills that can’t be replaced by a robot. 

On the upside this massive shift means human potential is being freed up from more mundane tasks giving us more opportunities to innovate and create. We are on the cusp of exciting new frontiers.

Artificial intelligence and algorithms are now playing a significant role in our everyday lives, yet we are so focused on data that we waste huge amounts of human potential, squeezing the creativity out of young minds. Yet as I write this the new professions that are emerging require more flexibility and creativity than our current education system allows.

In my opinion tomorrow’s workforce will not be judged on what they know, but rather on their skillset and their ability to thrive in an economy that is continually evolving. I am already witnessing a rising need for problem-solving capacity teamed with analytical skills to address causes rather than just managing the effects.

As it stands there is little in our current education system that prepares children for employment now – let alone in a couple of decades’ time. 

If young people are to succeed in the future, we need to begin considering how we can best teach new competencies, new skills, new applications and new knowledge. We need to shift our educational mindset to ensure our children develop skills that can’t be replaced by a robot. 

This will in fact define a new era of employment that should be the most liberating and exciting humanity has ever experienced. But to achieve this we need to throw all the old rule books out and prepare children for a brand-new future as opposed to our past. 

w: mightysocial.tech