Redefining skills for an age when machines outsmart humans

Category: Business & Economics | Health, Science & Education
Published on May 27, 2012

Countries around the world are making the development of so-called “e-skills” a major priority in a bid to equip more young people with the skills to be successful in a world of intense technological change and global competition. Despite the fact that I despise the term e-Skills because it frames the challenge inappropriately, the focus on skills is certainly not misplaced given the shifts towards knowledge-based work and the growing gap in skills required to support data-and-science-driven industries of the future. As we’ve all heard, skills in technology, science and math are essential to virtually all of the lucrative, future-leaning careers one can think of, whether social media marketing or nano-manufacturing.

What frustrates me, is that the skills development programs I’ve witnessed in Europe and North America lack ambition in the scope of what they are trying to achieve, which mostly amounts to teaching the unskilled how to use a computer, operate basic office applications, and use the Internet to find and share information. These skills are essential, of course; especially when approximately 90% of all jobs require them. But fostering “e-skills” really only scratches the surface of what our economies need to remain innovative and competitive. Indeed, by limiting the discourse around skills to such a narrow, short-term vision, policymakers and bureaucrats are totally underestimating the depth of the social and economic challenges we face as technology reshapes the world we live in.

Not that long ago you may remember that IBM’s Watson -– one of the world’s most sophisticated supercomputers — handily defeated two trivia superstars in a round of jeopardy. The contest wasn’t even close. And as Brynjolfsson and McAfee argued so persuasively in Race Against the Machine, we need to understand that the AI revolution is beginning to do to white collar jobs what robotics and offshoring has already done to blue collar jobs in Europe and North America. In short, a combination of artificial intelligence and robotics is rapidly restructuring the economy, leading to more technology-driven automation than most people imagine. Now is the time to get real about the challenges AI-driven automation poses to employment over the next half-century.

Over time, trade and technology will continue to increase the number of substitutes for workers with only moderate cognitive or manual skills—people who perform routine tasks such as product assembly, process monitoring, administrative support, basic information brokering and simple software coding. Even boiler plate legal work can be done by computers, just as X-Rays scanned into computers can be interpreted by medical professionals on the other side of the world.

These changes have largely been a boon for workers with world-class educations and exceptional creative talents, especially entrepreneurs. Yet the same forces are already displacing a growing segment of the professional middle class in Europe and North America. While skills development programs focus on fostering a very limited set of basic IT skills (the kind that can be easily automated), the very basis of our economy is changing and we are not preparing today’s workers for the new economy that is emerging.

If there is good news, it’s that there are endless creative uses for technology that computers can neither invent nor automate, which is why young people today must be encouraged to see technology through a much broader lens and as much more than basic IT skills. The ability to write code or manipulate statistical data are hugely desirable skills, to be sure. If anything, these are the kinds of skills that will accelerate automation. But, in my eyes, the ability to envision how complex processes and institutions can be reinvented using technology is equally valuable, and this is one area where people with more of a social-science persuasion have a potential advantage.

Society needs to redefine what a career in technology means. Most people think of the back office and the quintessential IT Guy, and I believe that image is not helping. We need a much more expansive vision and understanding of what IT-related careers entail particularly when it comes to applications of technology in fields like education, health or energy, and of course how IT can be leveraged to operate successful companies in today’s environment. We need cross-disciplinary thinking more than ever and people with the ability to fuse technology literacy with leading-edge research from psychology, sociology and economics, for example.

The truth is that technology is underpinning a profound shift in our society — a shift that could be analogous to the impact the rise of the printing press had on the system of feudalism that dominated European society some five centuries ago. We have already seen profound changes in the way we work, the way we communicate with friends and family and the way we inform, educate and entertain ourselves. Major industries have been upended and reshaped by technology and more transformative changes are looming in everything from healthcare, education and science, to the way we produce and consume energy, to the nature of government and democracy.

As we navigate these changes in society, we need technology-literate and socially-minded workers and entrepreneurs to lead the way forward towards a more equitable and sustainable society; to help keep our economies competitive with China, India and Brazil; to drive new efficiencies in public administration and address the grand social and environmental challenges facing the world. This will require coders and data scientists, lots of them. But it will also require people with softer skills too, especially those who can bring a multidimensional understanding of the social uses of technology. Bringing disciplines together can foster a deeper appreciation for technology across the population and help seed creative new applications in every sector. It also strikes me as our best hope of addressing the jobs crisis in North America and Europe, one that stands to get a lot worse if we don’t broaden our thinking about the kind of skills required for an age where machines outsmart humans.

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