War against Automation



What are the skills that a 21st century student need to acquire? Is the present education system up to the task in imparting those skills?

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The Education system is going or will go through a war against automation. This appears like a zero-sum game for now, while it doesn’t have to be. This post aims at explaining why I think our educational institutions are highly under prepared for this war and why millions could be rendered unemployed unless proper reforms are brought in.


The post is definitely not anti-technology, technology can never replace human beings or human intervention, technology only adds value to human time. If one accountant can do the work of 10 accountants with the help of a computer, one perspective is that tech has killed 9 jobs, while another perspective is that it has empowered one person to do 9 times more work. This is good for the economy, with the cost of doing business dropping down, more businesses coming up, money changing more hands and wealth gets distributed more evenly.


However, we see that our education system is very slow to respond to any new technological waves. This is probably due to the fact that adaptability, life-skills, problem solving, learnability find no place in our education system. However, the AI wave is very different from any of the other waves which mankind has ever seen. AI is replacing white collared workers, while most tech waves ended up killing blue-collar jobs. So the question is whether AI undermine the already not so economically viable higher education?


Think about it, those jobs which do not require too much of thought, with some patterns can actually be automated. I had got 5th graders to draw decision trees for automating basic activities like that of a call center executive. Secondly, the entry barriers for soft-robots are lot lower than that of hard-robots. Once the software is developed, several use-cases can be explored and companies would effortlessly automate , using soft-robots. However, a hard-robot might actually require lot more physical infrastructure and so human labor may have an edge there. It is like your classic mechanization versus cottage industries debate. So your physical labor may still be valued but not low grade white collar jobs like telecalling, accountancy, HR etc.


So if you’re educated, you better know how to think, how to solve problems. If you can’t do what an AI can’t, you are adding no value to the company, unless you can chop some wood or put in some other form of physical labor. So, how do you add value? Well, look at the post digital workplace! People use computers to improve productivity, this could probably understood using the Japanese concept of autonomation (automation with human involvement). But there is a difference between the computer tools like MS Office, Adobe Design suite and concepts like AI, ML. We need people who can operate dynamically, take decisions and achieve lot more productivity by leveraging the power of AI. AI acting on Adobe Suite can empower a designer a lot more, but can a designer leverage this to either produce better designs or faster designs? We need to produce thinkers who can design new models- technology models and sustainable business models over these tech models.


So here’s the question bucket

1- Do our graduates understand what a model is? Do they understand what a concept is? Do they understand abstraction? Do they understand how abstract ideas can be extrapolated for problem solving? Do our teachers understand what extrapolation is?


2- Which subjects teach us about models? Do we give enough importance to Philosophy and Mathematics (not the robotic one, but the artistic Mathematics)?


3- Can these graduates brainstorm enough? Do we have space for questions, counter-questions, cross-questioning? Why is that all our school level competitions- debates, MUNs, quizzes do not allow cross-questioning (not more than 1-2 typically)? Where does depth come from if you don’t allow cross-questioning?


4- Do our graduates understand the difference between information and insights? Why is it that all our exams are based on Knowledge and not wisdom? Is it knowledge even relevant when you couple your Google with AI and voice recognition?


5- Do our graduates understand problem solving? Do they see enough case studies? Do they get an opportunity to solve new problems? Do they understand the process of introspection, after every problem solving experience, to be able to derive insights out of 10 experience, which could be extrapolated to the 11th problem?


6- Why do most our graduates understand “theory” to be rote-learning? Is it because all their learning is centered around questions/answer mode? Do they even understand what conceptual clarity means? Do they even understand how theorizers, researchers, visionaries think or is it just magic to them?


7- How do we move our graduates from content/output to processes? Do they even understand the output centrism/ process centrism dichotomy? Well, most of them don’t even understand what a dichotomy and why such a distinction is even important?


8- Do our graduates understand the power of iterations? How would they realize the power of “iterate and evolve” when they lack real life problem solving experience? Even if they do possess some experience, does our anti-intellectual stance help here?


9- Do our educational institutional value intellect? Why is that our graduates do not listen or read insights of people like Dr Raghuram Rajan, Prof V.S.Ramachandran or Prof. Richard Dawkins? Do they understand the difference between a student growing up with the stories of these great men versus your filmstars and sports stars?


10- Why is that critical thinking, interpersonal communication, soft-skills and other important career skills are not given enough time during school time? Do we even understand the right time to pick up the right skills? Do we even have a vision for education? Can this ignorance (on the part of both institutions and parents) help?


I just wanted to point out that our education system needs a massive transformation, if our schools and colleges have to stay relevant. Otherwise, education may not add any value to these output centric parents/students who see job as the only purpose for pursuit of education/degrees.


The author Tarun is the founder of Sciensation is an edumedia organization which is into research based learning, which gets school students into process centric paradigms of education.

This article originally appeared here on the author’s LinkedIn page.

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