My Say: Preparing students for a world of robots

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 3 - 9, 2017.


Last weekend, I went back to my parents’ hometown in Segamat, Johor, for the family’s annual Cheng Beng gathering. My godson Edward, seven, lives in Segamat with his parents and attends school there. Upon arrival, I was told that he was still at class. “What class?” I asked. It turns out to be Lego Robotics.

I was surprised and impressed that there are classes on Lego Robotics for children of such young age. If robotics tuition classes are conducted even in a relatively small town like Segamat, the age of robots is truly upon us.

This is no surprise. Machines have played a key part in the rise and fall of nations. The creation of the Turing machine in the 1940s marked a turning point in the march of the machines by introducing arguably the world’s earliest form of machine intelligence. The growth of artificial intelligence has been exponential since then, with robots now becoming a pervasive part of modern life — playing prominent roles in manufacturing, household chores, construction, even coffee-making and, well, adult entertainment.

While robots have increased productivity, freed up spare time and, in some cases, provided entertainment and pleasure for humans, a common concern is that they will replace humans in the workplace. The empirical evidence in economic literature suggests this possibility.

A recent working paper by economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo finds that in the US, one more robot per thousand workers reduces the employment-to-population ratio by about 0.18 to 0.34 percentage points. Larry Katz, an economics professor at Harvard, agrees, stating that when it comes to job loss, “over the long haul, clearly automation has been much more important (than trade) — it’s not even close”.

If that is the past, what about the future? We can presume that as machine intelligence continues to grow exponentially, especially when it can learn on its own, the threat of machines to human jobs becomes more imminent. According to a report from the Oxford Martin School, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated that 57% of jobs were susceptible to automation across the world.

Furthermore, it is not only the low-skilled jobs that will be replaced. From the same study, among the top 10 jobs most at risk of being replaced by automation are mathematical technicians, tax preparers and insurance underwriters.

To stem the tide of automation, Microsoft founder Bill Gates has suggested that robots that steal the jobs of humans should pay income taxes. In a recent Project Syndicate article in this paper (Issue 1155, 

March 27), Yale economist Robert Shiller argues that, “a moderate tax on robots, even a temporary tax that merely slows the adoption of disruptive technology, seems a natural component of a policy…” The rage against the machine is still open to debate, but perhaps one angle that Malaysia should consider looking at is the future of education in a world of robots.

This issue is particularly salient, given the finding in Bank Negara Malaysia’s recent annual report that the youth unemployment rate in the county reached 10.7% in 2015, more than three times the national rate of 3.1%. To some extent, this should not be surprising. In all countries, the youth unemployment rate is always more than the national rate; after all, young people have less experience and less bargaining power.

But this trend is only likely to worsen as the machines rage on. Thus, a key question for education policymakers in Malaysia is, what type of education prepares students for a future of robots?

Sure, stuff like critical thinking matters, but against the tidal wave that is machine learning, this skill may be less useful. Nevertheless, we should focus on skillsets that will ensure a generation of thinkers rather than rote memorisation experts. But machine learning via neural networks may eventually eclipse human ability to reason and learn.

I am no education expert, but perhaps a good starting point is to look at jobs that are least susceptible to automation and figure out what their similarities are. According to the Oxford Martin School report, jobs that are least likely to be replaced by automation include mental health workers, social workers, doctors, psychologists and teachers. This is instructive. The common denominator between these jobs is a strong relationship with people or rather, jobs that require a deep sense of humanity.

Consider an individual facing mental health issues who would like to talk to a therapist. It is far more likely that the individual would prefer talking to a real human being than to a machine, even if that machine’s voice sounded like Scarlett Johansson’s voice in the movie, Her.

Similarly, patients who are hospitalised would much prefer to talk to doctors with great bedside manners rather than to robots. Artificial intelligence can perform the diagnosis, but breaking the news is probably still best left to a human doctor. Another stark observation of the jobs listed above is that, with the exception of doctors, the majority of them are not well paid. The ones that require mostly humans are also among the least valued in the labour market. We must have messed up somewhere along the way.

Thus, what an education policy in the age of robots really must do is to focus on the greatest strength and advantage of humans over robots — the ability to be human. This means education that builds empathy, kindness, understanding and acceptance of others, however different they may be to us.

I doubt that our education system and, for that matter, most education systems around the world, can deliver such an outcome, given that despite a more inter-connected world, there is still so much hate for the “other”. As the machine rages on, it is perhaps time to completely revolutionise our education system to train humans to be, well, human.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy Division