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  1. Science & Tech
12 October 2016

MPs want pupils to learn to rival robots – they should be equipped for a work-free world instead

If they want to prepare students for the future, schools should actually teach lessons about the history of horses.

By Amelia Tait

“But Miss, when will I ever use this?” It’s a popular refrain uttered by students up and down the country when faced with the daunting prospect of trigonometry or – god forbid – algebra. But now schoolchildren everywhere have a parliamentary report to back up their complaints. MPs on the Science and Technology Committee have today urged the government to reform education to “focus on things that machines will be less good at for longer”.

It’s not a very good sentence, but it’s also not a very good idea. Although it’s excellent that the Committee is asking the government to plan for how Artificial Intelligence will affect our future, the phrasing of this line in particular is very short-sighted. What “things” will machines be less good at? How long is longer? Are there even any skills we can teach children that AI won’t be able to replicate within a few years?

“I am a bit of an extremist in that I believe that over the next 30 to 40 years most people will become unemployable because of the improvements in intelligent machines,” says Calum Chace, author of The Economic Singularity, a book about how AI will affect our world. “I don’t believe we will create all these new jobs that robots somehow won’t be able to do. I think we have to bite the bullet and accept that machines will do pretty much everything that can be done for money.”

It’s arguably myopic, then, to teach students skills that robots can’t yet replicate. The AI revolution will undoubtedly create new, previously unheard of, jobs, but how long is it before AI will be able to do these jobs too? “I think it’s a grave mistake to think that we can educate people to be able to do jobs that machines can’t do,” says Chace. “Machines are improving their abilities at an exponential rate, so they’re getting twice as good every 18 months. They’ll carry on doing that for a long time so we can’t hope to outpace them.”

Yet the solution isn’t also to scrap school altogether and tell Timmy that yes, he’ll never need trigonometry and/or the use of his arms. Instead of teaching students the skills we believe robots won’t be able to emulate, we should teach them the skills to survive in a world without work.

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There are countless problems with a seemingly utopian notion of a “post-job world”. What will we do with our time? Will people starve? Won’t we become depressed without a purpose in life? If we want to reform education to prepare for AI, these are the questions that should be on the curriculum.

“Understanding how societies work and play and how they could work in the future is a big part of the skillset that the younger generation needs to have,” says Chace. “The first really big challenge we face is how to make sure we don’t all starve. We’ll get to a point somewhere in the next fifteen to twenty years where a quarter of the population can no longer work and they will not be happy to be on the dole. We’re going to have to have a different form of income.”

You might have already solved this problem by muttering “Universal Basic Income” and nodding to yourself, but Chace argues this shouldn’t be implemented yet. “We don’t have the economy to afford it,” he says. “And if you try to introduce UBI now then the rich people will just leave the country because you have to tax them heavily to afford it.”

Faced with this challenge, schools should be challenging students to think about alternatives to UBI, or how to successfully implement UBI when the time comes.

But society, not just the economy, will be transformed if no one has to work. Chace argues that in this scenario education will be more important than ever, and we must face the challenge head-on to ensure humans don’t become useless or redundant. “It should be that we live in a world where machines do all the boring stuff and we get on with the important parts of life like playing, being social, exploring, and learning.” Just because we will not have jobs, then, does not mean we won’t work.

It is not a given that technological unemployment will happen, but most experts agree it is likely to some extent. Although some economists argue that we survived automation in the past and therefore there is nothing to worry about, Chace notes that the key difference is that machines previously replaced our muscles, not our brains.

“We need to hit the economists on the head,” he says. “In the past, automation hasn’t caused lasting unemployment and has raised the level of wealth in the economy and created new jobs, but past examples of automation have replaced our muscle power and we had our cognitive abilities.” So what will happen when robots replace our brains? For the answer to that, Chace argues we should look at the horse (any horse will do).

“In 1900, there were 25 million horses working on American farms,” he says. “And by 2000 there were pretty much none. And those horses didn’t have children, and their grandchildren don’t exist. Now we won’t go extinct because of technological automation but we will not be doing jobs.”

Although Chace’s timeframe of 30 to 40 years might be extreme, most experts do think we should prepare for a world without work. Professor Nick Bostrom, a philosopher and head of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, believes that in the short term the demand for human labour won’t fall too much. He still, however, believes educational reform is needed. “A good strategy might be to make the education system and the labor market more flexible, so that you can continue to learn and shift gears at any point in life,” he says. “In the long run, yes, we may need to refocus education to emphasise learning to enjoy and make meaningful use of leisure.”

Today’s report, then, is an excellent step forward and we obviously can’t expect solutions right away. But instead of focusing on the short-term solution by teaching skills robots can’t replicate, schools need to teach about the economy, society, and psychology to prepare for a world without work. “Millennials are the generation that has to navigate this,” Chace says, but what would he put on the curriculum?

“This might be grossly self-interested but I would honestly suggest that they should read my bloody book.”

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