Obsolescence in education and employment

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I have this queasy feeling in my stomach about the seemingly nonchalant attitude of education and employment officials in the face of artificial intelligence and robot attacks. I can sense a tsunami that will cause massive destruction for our people in the near future, especially those in their most productive years. But unlike established tsunami alerts that warn our coastal areas of possible tidal waves caused by major earth convulsions, I cannot see or hear a sense of urgency among both education and business leaders approximating the risks of the onrushing tidal wave of artificial intelligence and robot substitutes for our labor force.

Artificial intelligence development is not new, but its pace is picking up at breakneck speeds. Almost daily are reports of new levels of artificial intelligence being deployed in the workplace and the trend is now irreversible. It is as though the near future is unfolding before our eyes. And it also seems that most of our leaders are too busy with something else, purportedly for the benefit of our people, yet quiet in the face of the most dangerous threat to people and nation since the Japanese invasion during World War II.

There is a stream of reports from around the world about disappearing jobs, not because of business reversals, but because the jobs are being taken over by technology or robotic activities. One example is an article I read from the Nikkei Asian Review, written a few months ago, about the thousands of positions at risk as online technology is being resorted to by bank account holders going to machines instead of tellers and customer service representatives. This development is being replicated in many other businesses. One that is starting to be heavily felt in the Philippines (after many countries abroad experienced it ahead) is that growing impact of online shopping that is stealing away business and employment in physical stores in malls and elsewhere. It is not just a trend, it is the future in our faces.

It is so shortsighted to look at employment and positions in companies without connecting the dots to both what technology is about to penetrate the market on one hand and what kind of skill sets of human employees would become necessary in the future. We need to look at the near future with urgent concern because its first look is already visible and then look at what kind of workers should we become when technology and robots will be better options than human beings. It is not only about our workers in the next five to ten years, it is more importantly about our students who are preparing to be workers eventually. Our students must not be educated to become the obsolete worker ten to fifteen years from now.

Jack Ma, one of the richest men in China and the world has a favorite mantra today that he openly shares with everybody. Including YouTube. He warns especially those in countries who are in charge of education, insisting that the need to change our educational systems is now because our future graduates will be competing with vastly superior artificial intelligence when they start to work. Essentially, his recommendations are for us to focus on teaching and learning what machines cannot do, what he calls the “soft” side of life like values, independent thinking, the spirit and spiritual, sports, music, and the like – as contrasted to the “hard” equivalent that artificial intelligence and machines will do much better.

Jack Ma is kind. He is warning us that 30 years from now, “if we do not change the way we teach, we will be in trouble.” I believe Jack Ma knows it is going to be much earlier than that, and in fact, it has already begun, but I guess he does not want to create panic. I think he should, though, because many leaders in many countries need to be in panic before they act with speed and political will. I also wish he will scare the daylight out of our societal leaders in the Philippines because we are such a labor-intensive country. We cannot condemn ourselves to lose our advantage because our advantage, the service orientation, and attitude are already one of our natural talents.

I know that all nations, to the best way they can, try to produce all they need so there will be little or no dependence on essential products and services that need to be imported. That makes manufacturing an essential industry, vital to our security. Well, the manufacturing industry will be deeply affected by artificial intelligence and robotics. In all probability, they will shift to this posthaste. We will be producers, maybe even better and greater producers, but it will be driven by technology and artificial intelligence.

The service industry, though, maybe our brightest area. The traits and skills that excel in the service industry form part of what Jack Ma calls “soft”. What is most threatened is where our educational system is almost totally focused on – the knowledge game. That same knowledge game will be dominated by artificial intelligence, as in dominate. Our young children are now being taught to eventually compete with machines. If we do not drastically design a new educational format, we are virtually condemning our youth to a contest where they cannot possibly win. And will our government and business leaders force employers to hire human beings when machines are available – and being utilized by their competitors here and around the world?

Over five decades, I have witnessed Filipinos unable to learn the many lessons that religion and politics have taught us, lessons not from the wisdom of their visions but from the painful mistakes of our failures. It seems though that the maturing process of our values and ethics can be more flexible, can absorb greater margins of error. After all of our mistakes, we are still getting by without great misery and destruction. But we are left behind in education, production, and economic activity, there will be hell to pay.

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