The future of education in a world of white-collar automation. #2 #cong16

By Victor del Rosal.

Future of Education in a world of whote collar automation by Victor del Resol

Up until the industrial revolution muscle power was limited to what animals and humans could provide. With the advent of the steam engine, the availability of physical power grew exponentially, marking an era of tremendous progress. This is referred to as the first machine age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew Mcafee in their Second Machine Age book. 

If muscle power was essential to that age, brain power is the key for the second machine age. However this is not the natural brain power of humans, but that afforded by computers. It is the era we live in, where plentiful computing power—which continues to grow exponentially—multiplies the availability of cognitive power. Today computers are doing the jobs that were reserved for humans not long ago. This is powering the era of automation.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out that it is the “exponential, digital, and combinatorial” nature of technology that underpins the powerful nature of the second machine age. Processes which were limited to human labor are now being performed by computer code. Automation will continue to especially impact work that is predictable and repetitive.

The implications are profound and far-reaching. Within two decades the equivalent of billions of new brains will be added to the global economy. But these will not be human brains but artificial intelligence agents performing all sorts of knowledge tasks. 

Not so special after all

As the global supply in intelligence—human or artificial—increases, human cognition loses its value; it is no longer unique, especially as AI systems get more sophisticated. This is because the supply of computing power is steadily increasing, and it will do so until it becomes ubiquitous. Overall the price of a floating operation per second is dropping. All of this powers a cocktail of technologies that make us humans increasingly replaceable. Humans may not be so special after all. Computer code is replacing basic human cognitive functions across a variety of functions and industries.

One of the consequences of the technological progress is precisely our availability to replace human cognition with machine cognition.

Automation is not a new thing

However, automation is not a new thing. In a Pew Research Center study, Jim Warren, the founder and chair of the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy, wrote that “Automation has been replacing human labor—and demolishing jobs—for decades, and will continue to do so. It creates far fewer jobs than it destroys, and the jobs it does create often—probably usually—require far more education, knowledge, understanding and skills than the jobs it destroys.”

Rex Troumbley, researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wrote, “We can expect robots, artificial intelligences, and other artilects to increasingly displace human labor, especially in wealthy parts of the world. We may see the emergence of a new economy not based upon wage labor and could be realizing the benefits of full unemployment (getting rid of the need to work in order to survive)”.

The reason why this will start in wealthier parts of the world is simple: a worker in the developed world is more expensive than her peer in a developing country. There is simply more incentive for a corporation to start an automation process where wages are higher. In the developing world, where labor intensity is still affordable it will take longer, but it will also come of age.

AI and robotics will continue to displace low level worker skills

A top digital media strategist at a U.S. national public news organization responded, “Our continuing failure to re-train under-skilled workers will continue to create a glut of un- and underemployed as advances in AI and robotics require workers that are more educated than ever before. Those who attain those education levels will find new opportunities while under-skilled workers are left on the curb.”

Rebecca Lieb, an industry analyst for the Altimeter Group and author, responded, “Enterprises will require a highly educated, digital and data literate workforce, which does not bode well for blue-collar workers, or softer skill white-collar workers. Given trends in U.S. education, this could lead to high demand for engineers from foreign countries (as we've seen in the past) with advanced degrees in engineering, mathematics, etc., as institutions of higher learning in this country fail to produce enough graduates with the requisite skill sets.”

Education for the new wave of knowledge workers

If we accept that the new knowledge worker is an augmented human capable of leveraging knowledge and emerging technologies to achieve what a small army of non-augmented humans could do a few years ago, then we have to seriously ponder: how do you teach a learner like that?

No more carbon copies

In an Industrial economy, education was designed to replicate workers, so that they were interchangeable pieces of well-oiled machinery. However, exact copies of worker are no longer as useful or relevant, because, by virtue of automation we see that eventually most predictable patterns will be ultimately replaced. Emerging education must recognize that learners in the new economy are moving towards an era of specialization, where workers and entrepreneurs will be highly rewarded for coming up with unique solutions.

Education will then move away from the mass-production of graduates towards highly customized educational programs. Instead of following a cookie-cutter approach to teaching and learning we will realize that it makes more sense to follow highly personalized teaching-learning methodologies which are adapted to each learner. While technology will serve as a key enabler of this, the biggest challenge will not be technological or even methodological, but cultural. We need to reconsider the role of education for the era we have entered.

Realization of the student-worker-preneur

One of the questionable assumptions relates to how the educational system sees the learner: is she an employee? Is she an entrepreneur? Is she a perennial student?

John Baker, founder of Desire2Learn, asserts that “life in the industrial economy was typically viewed as a series of discrete segments: school, work and retirement. But this thinking is no longer viable as we have entered the era of lifelong learning.”

Are we then teaching students to be employees and not entrepreneurs? While we may be tempted to answer that everyone must be trained as an entrepreneur, it does not mean that everyone wants to be exclusively one or the other. The reality might lie somewhere in between: we need for learners to become proactive lifelong learners, who will likely work for a company as a full-time employee at some stage, and will more-than-likely start their own company, or be a freelancer. Hence a more balanced term which reconciles reality and work trends might be summarized in the realization of the student-worker-preneur, a term I have coined to represent that each of us is a student who is a worker and an entrepreneur in different degrees throughout our careers.

Memory augmentation: commoditized knowledge

If, for all practical purposes, knowledge is a Google search away, memorizing things will become irrelevant. The idea of regurgitating dates and names for the sake of it will be seen as a waste of time. Access to information will become increasingly commoditized and it will also be enhanced and sophisticated: from voice commands, to augmented reality displays, to automatic face recognition—the trend in memory augmentation is clear: we will need to memorize less and less. This implies that as educators the emphasis should not be placed on getting students to remember and regurgitate data. The case is strengthened by the increasing volume and speed at which information is generated; the body of knowledge in any given profession can change not in a matter of years but months or weeks. Hence, knowing is not enough. The actual competence, doing, achieving something, is the real test.

Questioning the purpose of education

How can education keep up in times of exponential change?

Whereas in an Industrial age the quantity of graduates was the key variable to optimize, in the new economy, it will be the quality of graduates. Thus, instead of graduating professionals with the same (commoditized) skills, the most valuable education will be that which is able to cultivate the uniqueness of each learner, including an optimal mix of hard and soft skills, that is, technical and interpersonal competencies.

Learning to learn

Decades ago it used to be enough to learn a trade in a four or five-year university program. However today, by some estimates, half of the technical information that you learn in a university program might be outdated by the time you finish.

In an era where new industries and business models are born overnight, it is clear that being able to learn at a record speed will not only give the learner a competitive advantage but it will become an essential skill for life.

However, as explored, the limitation for this is no longer access to information. Nowadays anyone can learn virtually any trade online, thanks to Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC), or through full university courses made available by Universities including Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While certification is still closely held by universities, the actual knowledge to be learned has increasingly become commoditized. As the new currency is being able to do, and not just knowing, the ability to proactively engage in self-taught education that helps develop real world competencies will become paramount.

Raison d'être: the motivation to learn

Underlying the ability to learn is the motivation to learn. In an article by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Stanford University, author Barbara McCombs, director of the Human Motivation, Learning, and Development Center at the University of Denver, is quoted on seven qualities of students who are optimally motivated to learn. McCombs points out that optimally motivated students see schooling and education as personally relevant to their interests and goals; they believe that they possess the skills and competencies to successfully accomplish these learning goals; they see themselves as responsible agents in the definition and accomplishment of personal goals; they understand the higher level thinking and self-regulation skills that lead to goal attainment; they call into play processes for effectively and efficiently encoding, processing, and recalling information; they control emotions and moods that can facilitate or interfere with learning and motivation, and; they produce the performance outcomes that signal successful goal attainment.

From my own experience working with students and business clients over the years, I see a clear correlation between the motivation for learning and the ability to learn. I would argue that it is more important to have a reason for learning, a powerful why that inspires the learner to pursue education.

This can be tied back to the importance of solving problems. To paraphrase McCombs, learning can be enhanced when the learner sees that what they learn can serve as a tool to impact the world in area that is relevant to their own interests.

This is perhaps one of the greatest opportunities we have today: helping learners discover a reason and purpose for learning.

Passion, Curiosity, Imagination, Critical Thinking, and Grit

Peter Diamandis often gets asked a question about raising children in times of exponential change. “So, Peter, what will you teach your kids given this explosion of exponential technologies?”

“In the near term (this next decade) the lingua franca is coding and machine learning. Any kid graduating college with these skills today can get a job. But this too, will be disrupted in the near future by AI. Long-term, it is passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and grit.”


“You’d be amazed at how many people don’t have a mission in life. A calling, something to jolt them out of bed every morning,” writes Diamandis.

Developing a passion is a key. It can be understood as the driving force, the true motivation behind work or any other endeavor.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times,” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, “the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

In this state of flow, a student-worker-preneur can be completely absorbed in an activity, especially one involving creativity. During this “optimal experience” you feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of your abilities, according to the author. The key to this is setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for a person’s abilities.

In a talk at Singularity University, Ray Kurzweil, Google Director of Engineering, was asked "When robots are everywhere, what will humans be good for?" His answer was that, if under the logic that automation will take away a big chunk of the drudgery, the work humans don’t enjoy doing, it will leave us with more time to explore what we want to explore. Part of his advice then was to “develop a passion.”

American astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson says that “what you need, above all else, is a love for your subject, whatever it is. You've got to be so deeply in love with your subject that when curve balls are thrown, when hurdles are put in place, you've got the energy to overcome them.”

Developing a passion is closely linked with other three ingredients: curiosity, imagination, and critical thinking.


Jeff Bezos said this about success and innovation: “If you want to invent, if you want to do any innovation, anything new, you’re going to have failures because you need to experiment. I think the amount of useful invention you do is directly proportional to the number of experiments you can run per week per month per year.”

At an award’s acceptance speech in London, Google co-founder Larry Page, said “we tried a lot of things, most of which failed.” He elaborated that when they set out to create the world’s biggest search engine, they were just pursuing their interests, hopefully arriving at something that would be useful. The key takeaway comes in the form of direct advice from Page: “You should pick areas that you think are interesting, that could be valuable, or where there’s a lot of activity. I was interested at links because I knew no one else was interested in them, and I figured you could probably do something with them.” We can infer from this that curiosity is key to arriving at what actually interests you.

The author of Silicon Guild, Peter Sims, points out the work of INSEAD business school professors who surveyed over 3,000 executives and interviewed 500 people who had either started innovative companies or invented new products. They concluded that a number of the innovative entrepreneurs learned to follow their curiosity. Without curiosity it would be impossible to expand the frontiers of what is possible.

Videogame inventor Will Wright, co-founder of Maxis (which became part of Electronic Arts) points out the importance of the joy of discovery: “It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you.” SimCity, one of Wright’s creations, is an example of this.

Curiosity and the joy of discovery are closely linked to imagination, another quality identified by Diamandis.


“Entrepreneurs and visionaries imagine the world (and the future) they want to live in, and then they create it. Kids happen to be some of the most imaginative humans around… it is critical that they know how important and liberating imagination can be,” says Diamandis.

“Imagination is one of humanity’s greatest qualities,” says Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, “without it, there would be no innovation, advancement or technology, and the world would be a very dull place.”

Critical thinking

“Critical thinking is probably the hardest lesson to teach kids. It takes time and experience, and you have to reinforce habits like investigation, curiosity, skepticism, and so on”, says Diamandis.

A movement called Philosophy for Children, also known as P4C and under the auspices of Stanford University, began with the late philosopher Matthew Lipman’s 1969 novel Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery. The novel and accompanying teacher manual were designed to help children in K-12 learn how to think for themselves.

Dr. Peter Facione, who spearheaded the American Philosophical Association’s international study to define critical thinking elaborates on the meaning and importance of critical thinking: “We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based…. The ideal critical thinking is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are the subject and the circumstances of inquiry”.

Ad Astra school: “to the stars”

Speaking of education for disruptors, it makes sense to examine how disruptors are teaching their own kids. Elon Musk’s disruptive endeavors span finance (PayPal), solar energy (Solar City), cars (Tesla), space exploration (SpaceX) and now, education. He didn’t like his kids’ school, so he started his own. It is called Ad Astra which means “to the stars”. For now the school is also serving kids of SpaceX employees. One of its features is a focus on problem solving. “Let’s say you’re trying to teach people about how engines work,” said Musk to a media outlet. “A more traditional approach would be saying ‘We’re going to teach all about screwdrivers and wrenches’. This is a very difficult way to do it. A much better way would be, like, ‘Here’s the engine. Now let’s take it apart. How are we going to take it apart? Oh, you need a screwdriver’.” This is clear approach to ignite motivation and critical thinking. “It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitude and abilities,” also remarked Musk. Interestingly, Musk reports that his kids “really love going to school” so much that “they actually think vacations are too long; they want to go back to school.” 

The Montessori approach

In a Wall Street Journal article, Peter Sims points out that “the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite.” He cites that it is so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia. Graduates include Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

In an interview with Barbara Walters, Larry Page said: “we both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training, of not following rules and orders and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”

The Montessori learning method was founded by Maria Montessori and it features a collaborative environment without grades or tests, multi-aged classrooms, as well as self-directed learning and discovery for long blocks of time, primarily for young children between the ages of two and a half and seven.

The approach nurtures creativity, taking after the work of inventors who typically improvise, experiment, fail, and retest. Sims points out that inventors such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were voracious inquisitive learners.

In a world flooded with often-conflicting ideas, baseless claims, misleading headlines, negative news and misinformation, you have to think critically to find the signal in the noise, explains Diamandis.


Finally, grit is seen as “passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals,” and it has recently been widely acknowledged as one of the most important predictors of and contributors to success.

Pinterest was launched in 2010. The story of co-founder Ben Silbermann is a great testament of perseverance. In 2008, Silbermann decided to quit a job he hated. However, he didn’t know what he wanted to build, so built an app called Tote… and it flopped. He then decided to try a new idea, a site for collecting things, and it was rejected by many investors. He made fifty different versions of the site, launched it and got 200 initial users. Silbermann personally wrote welcome emails to his first 7,000 users, and in this process he discovered that his early adopters were “moms”. The rest, as they say, is history. Today Pinterest is home to over 500 employees. The company recently doubled its valuation to over $11 billion.

Education and life as process of self-directed learning

Sergey Brin said “there are many important things to life aside from financial or career success, and in fact, it’s not necessarily the ultimate success that motivates you, it’s the process of getting there; the technology, the products that you build. I am not too concerned about finding something to do, though I do think it will be based on doing things that I really enjoy, and not have some end goal in mind.”

Being exposed to new people and ideas

Speaking of predictors of career success, according to Ron Burt, one of the world’s top network scientists, being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success, a discovery based on multiple, peer-reviewed studies.

Burt explained that if you are a member of a “large, open network where you are the link between people from different clusters”, as opposed to being a member of a “small, closed network where you are connected to people who already know each other” you have a much higher chance of overall career success

“The more you repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. The further you go toward an open network, the more you’re exposed to new ideas.” Simmons concludes, based on network science, that people who are members of open networks, and hence open to all sorts of new information, are significantly more successful than members of small, closed networks.

The relevance of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) education

The other key distinction in terms of education directly correlates with the first part of the book: emerging technologies.

The fact that a number of highly disruptive technologies are coming of age in a relatively short time frame presents an opportunity for student-worker-preneurs focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM). This is due to the competitive advantage that comes from being the first movers in those particular technologies.

Software guru, Jesse Stay, comments that, “there will be a much stronger, and greater need for engineering, and STEM-related jobs.”  

Overall employment trends by the US Labor Market Statistics, point out that graduates of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors are and will be the most demanded areas. In the United States, STEM employment grew three times more than non-STEM employment over the last twelve years, and is expected to grow twice as fast by 2018.

Emerging technology companies will demand specialists in the areas we have reviewed, including 3D printing, advanced robotics, big data, biotech, nanotech, etc. presenting an economic opportunity of close to $20 trillion in the next 10 years. This will require specialized graduates in a wide array of industries, according to McKinsey & Co. However, as reported by Manpower and various studies, even at present, tech companies are struggling to find qualified candidates, resulting in unfilled positions and reduced growth.

Importance of the Soft skills: the 4 C’s

Perhaps some of the hardest skills to teach, the so called soft skills, may be the most important ones in a new economy. While we have already referenced creativity and critical thinking, communication and collaboration will also be essential enablers for the modern student-worker-preneur. Referred to by some educators as the 4 C’s, these soft skills are already instrumental in the workplace.

Leaders and Entrepreneurs

At the intersection of the technical and interpersonal competencies we can appreciate that two traits emerge: leadership and entrepreneurship. Arguably this is the intended result of the educational system. Moreover, I conclude that a focus on developing leaders and entrepreneurs might be the right educational aim, as this in consonance with the workplace shifts occurring over the next two decades, where less repetitive and predictable tasks are performed and where higher order tasks, in terms of cognitive complexity, will be the norm.

One of the projects we have started at Emtechub is precisely to identify young talented individuals from around the world who are doing impressive work with emerging technologies. They are emerging as leaders in their fields, addressing real world problems. We call it the Emerging Technology Leaders Global Initiative. Emtechleaders (for short) is a non-profit initiative that will help inspire young students around the world to pursue STEM careers, with a focus on emerging technologies.

Inspiring the young and young at heart

Neil deGrasse Tyson affirms that “Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers, poets, actors, journalists, they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture. They vote in ways that promote it. They don't fight science and they don't fight technology.”

Putting it all together

The Berkeley Alumni magazine points out that the inventor of the CRISP-cas9 DNA editing method, Jennifer Doudna “came to UC Berkeley from Yale in 2002 with a reputation for working side-by-side with Nobel laureates and having a knack for building alliances with other creative thinkers. She was also known for her brilliance at teasing out the purpose of biomolecules and for an uncanny ability to glean the shapes of the virtually invisible: the remarkable molecular machinery that spins within living cells”.

This is a very telling statement. It not only reveals the importance of the hard technical skills, but how important it is to be able to collaborate, and to think creatively.

It strengthens the idea that the way forward in education has to do with a mix of hard and soft skills.

High tech companies are not only looking for proficiency in the hard, technical side of technology, but on the soft skills. In a Forbes article, Rich Milgram, CEO of career network Beyond, is quoted saying, “And more about how you think systems through and work within the context of the team. Learning a technology is the easy part. Having the mindset to apply it, having the mindset and logic to process it, being thorough and detail-oriented while doing so, these are the critical skills.”

Teaching with automation in mind

If we accept that machines will progressively take over predictable and repetitive labor, it makes more sense to teach with a focus on the tasks that cannot be performed by AI systems. This will become more evident as automation advances in the coming years. Hence, it makes more sense to focus on nurturing a skillset of both hard and soft abilities aimed at solving complex problems, out of the reach of automated systems, at least for now.


CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie