Rising above the shadow of machines

Honda’s ‘do-all’ robot Asimo. The rise of AI and machine learning will allow us to divert our energy from mundane tasks towards more creative functions. (Photo asimo.honda.com)

Author: Sutapa Amornvivat, Ph.D.
Published in Bangkok Post newspaper / In Ponderland column 17 January 2018

The Thai National Children’s Day has recently passed — a special day which not only celebrates, but also reaffirms the importance of the young generation as the future. While it is clear that the children of today will eventually grow to be the leaders of tomorrow, it is much less clear what exactly that future will look like. In the spirit of Children’s Day, I want to discuss how we can best prepare the future generations for an increasingly technologically-driven world.

As the fourth industrial revolution races on, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots are beginning to replace human workers in a wide array of jobs. A study by McKinsey estimates that up to 50% of current jobs could be replaced by machines within the next 20 years. As AI technology progresses, the scope of applications only broadens — now expanding into tasks that require cognitive skills previously exclusive to humans.

Last September, I wrote about how raising minimum wages may accelerate this process. One of the more immediate solutions is to use education programmes to re-skill people and train them to leverage new technology in their daily work, in particular, for workers in vulnerable industries such as manufacturing who face the highest risk of automation. However, this measure may only work in the short run.

Over time, AI technology will continue to develop, becoming smarter and more complex, further fulfilling more roles held by humans. The future generation will need to possess a set of skills which AI cannot compete with or outdo.

A concern is that the current education system in Thailand may not adequately prepare the new generation for the future. Values such as discipline and obedience are overly-emphasised. Much of the school curriculum emphasises memorisation rather than learning. These qualities will not differentiate us from machines.

It has passed the age where teachers should make students memorise new information as a primary method of learning. Regurgitating information is something that will be easily automated. We need to redefine the definition of straight-A students and offer ways to reward children with a new set of skills required to become future leaders.

What will differentiate us from machines are sophisticated social skills, creativity, and the ability to learn from our surroundings. These skills are not being actively encouraged enough in the current curriculum. Instead, students are evaluated individually through exams. This method assesses a very narrow spectrum of a person’s overall ability and potential. As a result, soft skills are undervalued and at times neglected.

Yuval Noah Harari argues in his bestselling book, Sapiens, that humankind’s secret to success against other species is large-scale flexible collaboration. Regardless of technological developments, society and community will remain and social skills will still be a vital determinant of success. People will look to leaders who can rally, inspire and connect to others on an emotional level. It is unlikely that a machine will ever fulfil this function. Schools should aim to foster such social skills perhaps through increased assessment and reward of group achievements, rather than promoting individualism.

The rise of AI and machine learning will allow us to divert our energy from mundane tasks towards more creative functions. While machines have become more intelligent, they cannot achieve genuine human-like creativity. In a future where AI will likely surpass humans in technical and industry knowledge, imagination is the one cognitive skill that will provide the most value. To achieve progress, future leaders will need creativity — the ability to visualise the unknown, and spot opportunities hidden in routine systems.

The social element is a crucial aspect in nurturing this creativity. In Where Good Ideas Come From, the author Steven Johnson argues that good ideas do not typically arise internally and independently from an individual’s thoughts. Often, great ideas require a spark from external experiences and social interactions. School activities which promote collaboration and teamwork are necessary to prepare children for the modern workforce.

Students should be taught methods of learning and the ability to make judgements on the information that they receive. Curiosity and the freedom to ask questions should be praised. Lifelong learning beyond the classroom will be all the more important to cope with the rapidly shifting job market impacted by technology. New skills and competencies will constantly need to be learned and re-learned.

With the internet, information is not only readily available, but also accessible through online learning platforms such as Coursera and Udemy. Information flow is abundant and education has become more democratised, albeit only for those who seek knowledge.

Instead of spoon-feeding information to children in a school setting, we should teach them that learning is possible outside the classroom as well. The true challenge for education is not only to teach children what to learn, but to also equip them with the essential critical-thinking skills to question, reason and argue.

An education which fosters our uniquely-human qualities such as creativity, collaboration, and curiosity will best prepare the young generation for the coming of AI. Instead of trying to compete with machines in their expertise, we should emphasise and develop the very skills that make us human. This will ensure that we not only remain relevant, but also thrive in a future disrupted by technology. The response from academic institutions has to match the scale of the AI-challenge. So far, it hasn’t.