For as long as computers have existed—and long before they could fit in the palm of our hands—there have been fears over what “The Robots” can do to us. From Robocops to Terminators, we’ve feared the impact that technology can have on our society, despite mountains of examples of just what good technology can do.
Not too long ago, we feared technology would get confused and just… stop. The Y2K bug provoked mass hysteria over what some viewed as a society overly reliant on computers, prepared to collapse under the boogeyman threat of a computer glitch. Today, the fear is automation. While it doesn’t have people running in a mad dash to stock up on milk, bread and toilet paper, it has nevertheless stoked a widespread fear that, when examined closely, is unfounded.
WE’VE SEEN MASSIVE CHANGE BEFORE
Those who point to automation as a tidal wave of change that will crash down—obliterating jobs and industries and leaving behind wrecked economy—fail to see the historical precedent of industrial sea changes. As a global society, we’ve seen at least two major industrial revolutions already, both of which completely changed the face of the workforce and industry.
But for every major technological advancement society has made (the printing press, the loom, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, telegraphs, telephones… the list goes on…) there has been a corresponding change in the relationship between employers and employees.
So why should the third industrial revolution, as the present wave of technological change is already being named, be any different? After all, on a very pragmatic level, our ability to thrive as a species is built upon our ability to adapt. And adapt we shall.
CHANGE INSPIRES INNOVATION
The ability we collectively have to adapt is precisely why we shouldn’t fear automation and why we should embrace it: eager and ready to solve the challenge. In the podcast that inspired this post, MIT economist Andrew McAfee points to an often-missed aspect of the automation discussion that is crucial: the problem with automation isn’t the loss of jobs, but the loss of a certain type of jobs. Mainly, those that require less education.
After all, the problem with automation is much more nuanced than the impact on individual income. “When I read about and go look around communities where work has gone away, I don’t see people starving. I don’t think lack of money is the problem. It’s a lack of dignity, glue for a community, meaning, purpose in life… things that a job is really good at giving to people,” McAffee says.
Despite the first stages of automation we’ve already begun to see, the American economy has continued to add jobs for more than 80 months straight. Job openings, however, increasingly require specialization, skills and education. That’s why automation should be a rallying cry: not to stop the impending robot overlords, but to break down barriers to education, so that we can once-and-for-all allow knowledge, learning and skills development to provide fulfillment to all those who seek it.
Automation isn’t evil, it’s a bright spotlight on why now, more than ever, we have to empower a learning-first culture that provides opportunities at every stage of life to learn, develop a trade, gain a skill and constantly improve. Automation is highlighting the fact that we must provide rich opportunities for every person to achieve dignity through education.
To get there, our institutions—both industry and academic—need to answer some tough questions.
- Why require a costly, traditional four-year degree when someone can learn their skills through programs like besomebody?
- Why should colleges ever hesitate to share knowledge widely and freely, when the oldest and most prestigious institutions are already opening the gates through platforms like Edx?
- Why shouldn’t employers begin training their employees for new skills, anticipating future pipeline needs in the wake of automation? After all, who is better poised to help guide the automated semi-trucks of the future than today’s truck drivers with a little training in logistics?
- How can educational institutions step up their current collaborations with communities, hospitals, businesses, governments and more to truly understand unique industry needs… and start preparing for them, now?
When you see automation for what it is, and you answer these questions accordingly, you can see the optimism the future holds. Together, we can seize this moment and use learning as our guiding light to find a future of prosperity for us all.