Please don't feed the robots

Paul Woodward
25th November 2016 at 14:26

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Please don't feed the robots

"As our technologies change the world, the responsibility only grows deeper for each of us to take an active role in shaping it the way we want—not the other way around."-Ray Kurzweil

Technological progress. It’s what we teach; it’s what we expect from the world and expect our students to understand. When I was a teenager growing up in a working class town, I can recall the horror stories of robots which would take over our jobs and that would make human workers redundant….literally. It turned out that the ‘robots’ of the time were actually automated processes and machinery with little or no sign of the robots my over active imagination conjured up after years of watching sci-fi films. Jobs were not lost en masse in my little town and humans were not rendered redundant…well not by mechanical beasts anyway. I wrote it off as stuff and nonsense until recently.

The news this year has been rife with stories of automation and robotics. Cyborgs that look uncannily like humans, self aware AI, cars that drive themselves and robots replacing manual workers. This is the one that has caused the most head scratching. We need products and they need to be made in increasingly large numbers at lightning speeds. The Internet, Amazon with their drones and 3D printing are just a few reasons we now expect things ‘on demand’. Google’s access to a wealth of knowledge means we no longer have to wait for the library to open in order to find out information.

Recently at work, for almost a week I was unable to machine some simple doors in MDF as something went amiss in the software used to process the models I had lovingly created in Solidworks. Some little bug was stopping me from turning the 3D model into a physical product. Now, think about this, here were around 10 simple rectangular small doors of varying sizes with a rounded edge. That’s it. I could have nipped down to the joinery area with a saw and a router and run them off in a few hours But no, several days of trying and failing to process the 3D model into a format the CNC machine could recognise was necessary in order to ensure that further products could be ‘automated’ correctly in the future. We even looked into moving to a different piece of CAM/CNC software thereby rendering the painful process of ‘fixing’ this error pointless.

But, as always, I digress. We are increasingly teaching and learning the processes needed for automated production of components. We use systems to make this happen and create robots and machines to perform more accurately and productively. Robots have already surpassed humans for strength, skill, endurance and accuracy. They work 24 hours a day and do jobs we would find repetitive but they also do jobs we can’t. Once we took pride in creating robots to do the job we didn’t want to do but now are they doing the jobs we want to do…but better? We still have a few ‘advantages’ over robots such as the complexity of the human mind and almost limitless creativity but even those are under threat. For years computers have surpassed humans for processing data but now we are reaching a point where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is able to make certain decisions better and faster than human beings.

It is speculated that AI will soon help doctors in diagnosing illness as well as making tactical decisions in warfare and in business. Global population will reach 10 billion by 2053 and AI will eliminate 6% of jobs in the next five years with 5 million jobs being lost before 2020 as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and other socio-economic factors replace the need for human workers. It is said that automation may replace 40% of Canadians in just 10 to 20 years. The good news is that those same technological advances will also create 2.1 million new jobs. But the manual and clerical workers are unlikely to have the required skills to compete for the new roles.

So what skills should workers be acquiring to make sure they have value as the so called 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' gathers pace? Each of us has unique talents, but the traditional education has often proven ineffective for discovering talent. Most new jobs will be in more specialised areas such as computing, mathematics, architecture and engineering. Even today many large companies such as Google don’t look at certificates and scores when recruiting; they judge candidates according to their skills and motivation.

In the upcoming 15 to 20 years a new profession will likely emerge: a prospector who searches not for natural resources but rather for true talent among people, checking billions of social media profiles and databases, looking for certain traits that point to talented people and the early signs of genius capabilities. If this were to happen, how will your students in the future ensure that they are picked up by such 'talent scouts'? It is highly unlikely that they will be spotted for their 'craft' skills unless we are so technologically obsessed by then that those, like sketching in a world dominated by CAD, become almost rare and valuable skills. They will, however, be spotted for their creative problem solving and technical skills as well as leadership and management potential. Even the 'higher order skills' we teach now in CAD and CAM, will likely become the manual labour of the future.

Of course, nothing I say will halt the progress of technology and I wouldn't want to but, if the above predictions are to be believed then we really need to ensure that our students are equipped with the skills to remain relevant in an automated future. This might support the argument for reducing the craft elements of design and technology education with more focus on the design of systems and technological products but in the near future I fear that the subject could find itself, even after the reforms, still looking very outdated indeed.



Paul taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a creative arts faculty as well as teaching art, ICT, photography and media studies. He is currently taking a break from education to return to the design industry.

His Subject Genius blog was shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.