WHAT WILL WE DO WHEN INTELLIGENT MACHINES TAKE OUR JOBS?

I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.” 

Ken Jennings, the highest-grossing Jeopardy! winner ever, scrawled this line at the bottom of his Final Jeopardy answer in the moments before he was trounced by IBM’s “Watson” computer in a three-day battle of game-show prowess.

But what about the rest of us? How are we going to feel when the robots come—and when they beat us at our own game? 

In the not-too distant future, we won’t drive our cars or vacuum our floors, that’s nearly certain. But that’s not all the ’bots will do for us—or in spite of us. At two University of California hospitals, pill-dispensing robots are already working as pharmacists. In the International Space Station, a 300-pound humanoid robot is being trained to take over simple tasks. And, much closer to home—literally and figuratively—computer software by Narrative Science steps into the role of human writers, crafting articles such as stock reports and sports stories. 

In fact, a recent study by Oxford University researchers found that 47% of jobs in the U.S. labor market are at risk of being taken over by computerization. Someday soon, we’ll have robot sales associates, artificially intelligent administrative assistants, and metallic construction workers.

Even highly paid, highly skilled professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, could be vulnerable to their mechanized counterparts. Computers are cheaper and arguably more thorough than lawyers when it comes to reviewing legal documents during the discovery period, for instance. And, in tests, Watson proved better at diagnosing lung cancer than doctors. Whether this is thrilling or terrifying is a matter of opinion.

What’s undeniable, however, is that machines have been taking the place of human workers for hundreds of years. And for the most part, technology has created more jobs than it has dismantled, and it has improved the lives of workers. 

But a cotton gin is a far cry from a virtual engineer, and a recent survey by the Pew Research Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center shows that technology experts are divided about whether or not computers will soon force millions of human workers onto the unemployment lines. 

The job market has always shelled out good money for deep knowledge and original thinking. But creative processes tend to become routinized over time, moving step by step from original work down to skilled work, from skilled work down to rote work, and from rote work down to robotic work. I call this the Robot Curve. And trust me when I say that we all want to be at the top of it. 

Stay ahead of the Robot Curve

At the apex of the Robot Curve is creative work. This includes scientific discoveries, product invention, and new business ideas. The cost of this work is high, and so is its value. A step down is skilled work, which includes the work of professionals such as doctors and lawyers. The techniques used by these professionals were once original, but now they’ve become best practices.

As skilled work becomes more standardized—or as technology can transform it—it turns into rote work. And rote work, as we know, can be outsourced. When a company hires a skilled worker to write a decision tree script for phone operators, it can hire unskilled workers halfway around the world to staff its phone lines.

When rote work can be done more cheaply or consistently with machines, it becomes automated. The human who once answered the phone in Bangalore is now a computer with voice-recognition software. The welder in Detroit has been replaced by a robotic arm.

The best jobs, therefore, will always be at the top of the Robot Curve. So how does one get up there—and, more importantly, stay up there? How do we keep the ’bots from stealing our paychecks? There’s a one-word answer to that question: metaskills.

Today’s robots are still relatively primitive, and their skills are job-specific. Human beings, on the other hand, have the capacity to develop the kind of metacognitive skills that give us what the French call savoir faire, “to know to do.” These metaskills are the best-known engine for driving innovation and economic growth. They’re what will help us search for higher ground, where our contributions will have uniqueness and value. Where our jobs won’t be outsourced to something that has to be plugged in at night.

I have identified a number of metaskills that I believe will spark innovation and act as guiding principles for life in a post-industrial era, and I talk about them at length in my book Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age. In summary, they are Feeling (activating our intuition and empathy), Seeing (being able to comprehend the big picture and overcome biases), Dreaming (engaging in applied imagination), Making (using design processes and design thinking), and Learning (understanding how we learn best). Metaskills, in other words, are essential to being creative—and being creative is an essential human trait. 

The problem is that our schools aren’t teaching these metaskills. They aren’t encouraging students to be original thinkers and radical agents of change. Instead they’re quizzing them on academic knowledge—which is subject-specific and brittle. Many of our policymakers believe if we just double down on testing standards and push harder on STEM subjects, we’ll revive the economy and compete better with countries that are taking our jobs. But this isn’t a strategic direction to take. The world doesn’t want human robots: it has real robots. Instead, it wants creative people with exceptional imagination and vision. 

Design Thinking and the Future of Education

So where do we go from here? I propose that we dismantle the educational factory, change the subjects, empower a new breed of online teachers, and make the mastery of metaskills more important than degrees and the textbooks and tests that define them. To do this, we’ll need to build a culture that replaces replication with imagination, reductive thinking with holistic thinking, passive learning with hands-on learning, and unhealthy competition with the creation of new value.

We should be teaching social intelligence, systemic logic, how to make things, and how to learn in our classrooms. Algebra, physics, art, and other traditional subjects should function as disciplines designed to explore these higher-order skills. Students should engage in project-based learning, rather than subject-based learning. Instead of being asked to take in, to memorize, students should be asked to give out, to produce the kinds creative projects that will help them find their passions and their personal source of energy and drive. 

The cold rationality of the assembly line works to produce great cars, but not great students. It has made us believe that if a thing can’t be counted, weighed, measured or memorized, it can’t be important. But the opposite is true. The old world turned on the axis of knowledge and material goods. The new one will turn on the axis of creativity and social responsibility. 

Technology will radically change the kinds of work we do—and that’s a good thing. We can’t be smarter or faster or more dexterous than computers anymore. All we can be is more uniquely human.

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