Only education can make us equal in the age of tech

2nd March 2018 at 00:00
With a tech revolution underway, we have never needed education more – it is vital to ensure that the gap between rich and poor doesn’t get wider, writes Sunny Varkey

At this year’s Global Education and Skills Forum, a special installation depicts what society might be like in 2030. It gives a glimpse into two possible hi-tech futures in which most jobs have been automated.

In one utopian scenario, the working week is cut to a mere 15 hours as machines free us from work. Workers can devote their vastly increased leisure time to helping others and developing new passions. In the alternative dystopian scenario, workers scrape together a living through insecure, menial micro-tasks in a disordered, bot-managed “gig economy”.

Of course, the reality will be less extreme than either of these scenarios, but they show what is at stake. On the one hand, technology puts within our hands the opportunity to solve humanity’s greatest scourges – from disease and hunger to poverty and climate change. But the most pressing danger is that these technologies, if not shared, could make the gaps between rich and poor parts of the world even more extreme, fanning dangerous populism and extremism of all kinds.

The reason we chose 2030 to focus on at this year’s GESF is that this is when expect the technologies that are now in their infancy to start to chisel our societies into a radically different shape. Those young people who will enter the jobs market in 2030 are already learning in primary school today. We must make decisions today on what skills and mental preparations they will need for this new world.

The revolution is underway. Artificial intelligence is already outperforming workers for a fraction of the cost. We have long been familiar with automation destroying skilled factory jobs, but it now poses as great a risk for those whose collars are white. In the legal profession, for example, AI natural language processing can reliably scan thousands of documents – something that used to require junior lawyers to work long hours. In medicine, sophisticated diagnostic applications can now outperform consultants in predicting, for instance, the likelihood of heart attacks.

A recent review by McKinsey suggested that 800 million presently existing jobs worldwide will disappear by 2030; one-fifth of the global workforce will have to seek other employment. Of course, new jobs will arise to replace those lost. In general, the jobs of the future will be those difficult for a machine to learn – roles high in creativity, leadership, communication skills, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, negotiation, influencing and lateral thinking. Schools will need to find ways of making the space in the curriculum to nurture these skills.

Soft skills and hard drives

Though this new world will require educational transformation everywhere, it is in developing economies that automation will wreak the greatest devastation because there are a higher proportion of low skill jobs to lose.

According to a report from the Oxford Martin School, 69 per cent of jobs in India, 77 per cent of jobs in China and 85 per cent of jobs in Ethiopia are at risk.

It’s a cruel twist that those parts of the world that will be most affected by the automation tsunami are the countries whose under-resourced education systems leave them least able to cope.

In Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South-East Asia, too many children are still out of school, and too many of those who are in class have an inadequate education.

Without better education, these countries will be unable to prepare young people for the high-skilled jobs that will replace those that are destroyed. Their economies will lag further and further behind and their societies will be denied the life-changing benefits of the new technologies.

We have a rapidly closing window in which to improve education before the automation revolution arrives with full force. Yet just at the moment when international education aid should be growing, it is shrinking. Overall, education aid is at a lower level now than in 2009. Sub-Saharan Africa gets less than half of the aid it did in 2002.

Commit to education

Governments have yet to really understand that we cannot solve any of the other problems besetting us – from health to famine and environmental threats – without prioritising education. I have proposed that we demand that the G7 countries enshrine in law their commitment to education aid — just as the UK has done with its spending on international development.

So what advice can I offer to young people – whether they are in a developed or a developing country – to help them prepare themselves for this new world? I would say to them: think about how we can use technology to solve our greatest problems and help those who have the least.

We have never needed education more. Leaps forward in technologies, from genetics to AI, will create possibilities, threats and dilemmas that will require wisdom, education and rationality to grapple with – not qualities that we see often enough in the headlines or in our social media feeds.

I would also say: learn as much as you can – and don’t worry about veering away from well-trodden paths. Satisfy your curiosity, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. By being a curious lifelong learner, you will have a richer life, and you will also be likely to be more successful in your work life, too.

We can’t possibly plan for all the opportunities, questions and dilemmas that the future will bring. But we do know one thing for sure: only through education will we find the answers.

Sunny Varkey is chairman of the Varkey Foundation. He tweets @sunnyvarkey_

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