Ready for the day the Machines Take Over

As cognitive machines begin to take over human decision-making functions, there is an urgent need to redesign education to promote creative thought and problem-solving. Without these changes, the next generation may be ill-equipped to stay ahead of the machines, risking being overwhelmed by technological advancements.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

When the first Industrial Revolution introduced the world to machines that were capable of producing goods faster and with greater efficiency than human muscles could hope to do, it destroyed forever, centuries worth of handcraft traditions. Within a decade, whole cohorts of weavers, leather workers, carpenters and the like were rendered jobless, forced, for their own survival, to re-skill themselves as workers on the shop floors of the very factories that had replaced them. The same story repeated itself during the second Industrial Revolution which created new industries and redistributed economic power to manufacturing facilities that hadn’t existed before. The third and most recent Industrial Revolution introduced computers and digital technologies to the mix, removing the political boundaries between marketplaces. For the first time, companies were freed of geopolitical constraints and could procure services from wherever they could be most efficiently delivered.

The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called this “creative destruction", an inherently paradoxical term that describes the impact that radical innovation has on capitalist society. In almost every instance, the net benefit of radical innovation outweighs the economic status quo that would have prevailed had there been none —even though this process of disruptive change results in the destruction of well established industries. Viewed from this perspective, entrepreneurs do far more than just innovate.

They introduce into the economy new means of production and distribution which, while often painful at the time, are necessary in order to ensure that scarce resources are continually being made more productive.

We are currently on the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The workforce is, once again, about to be radically disrupted by new technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and cognitive automation—in ways that we cannot, at this point in time, fully comprehend. If the past industrial revolutions were transformational, this one promises to be seismic. It is already anticipated that over 47% of all US jobs are at risk from automation. And while technological transformations, in the past, have allowed displaced workmen the opportunity to re-skill themselves to take up new roles within the transformed workplace, it seems increasingly unlikely that the workmen displaced by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have any role to play in their new technological reality.

The fault, at least in part, lies with our schooling.

Our current system of education was devised during the First Industrial Age to skill a generation that needed to be reoriented to the new demands of the industrial workplace. It was designed to ensure that the future industrial employee followed instructions without question, adhering strictly to the precise schedules and specifications that assembly line manufacturing demands. In the process, we consciously suppressed our very human tendency to extemporise, as any deviation from the mechanised production processes could be disastrous.

What we ended up with was our current system of age-based grades and standardized testing that assumes that all students of a particular age are at the same level of intellectual development and which incentivises memorisation over the ability to solve problems. A system that requires students to perform well across subjects but denies them the opportunity to develop specialized expertise in those for which they have an aptitude and that is ultimately designed to stifle creativity and innovative thinking. Today, a couple of centuries after it was first conceptualised, these elements remain the key characteristics of our education system.

The trouble is that the requirements of today’s knowledge industry are diametrically opposite to those of the initial Industrial Age. Business today requires us to demonstrate innovative thinking and out-of-the-box solutions. In this age of massive data storage and highly effective search, an education system that emphasises memorisation and rote learning is completely unnecessary. What we need, instead, is a way to train students to develop advanced cognitive skills so that they can parse complex problems in different ways in order to come up with unorthodox solutions that are not immediately obvious.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is going to be defined by the way in which cognitive machines take over our decision-making functions—something that we have always believed can only be performed by humans. While each preceding Industrial Revolution had allowed workers the opportunity to rise up the value chain, this time it appears that the machines will finally breach the cerebral bastion that we have always assumed will remain our sole preserve. Unless we can redesign our education system to promote creative thought over rigid process-based solutions, our next generation will be woefully ill-equipped to deal with their own future.

After all, when the machines do finally take over, we will need to stay one step ahead at all times—or else run the risk of being overwhelmed.