Underrated: Vocational training

Skilled jobs such as carpentry and nursing will be at a premium in an automated world

Underrated
(illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck)

Last January, Kai Fu Lee, a Taiwanese-born artificial intelligence expert and venture capitalist, made a bold prediction: within the next 15-20 years, 40 per cent of the world’s jobs will be lost to automation. Lee developed the world’s first speaker-independent, continuous speech recognition system. He knows what he’s talking about. Although blue-collar and white-collar professions will be affected, some professions will be disrupted more than others.

Think of adjectives to describe an accountant’s job and, chances are, words like “monotonous” and “mind-numbing” spring to mind. A 2017 PwC study reported that 40 per cent of the accounts payable process can and will be automated; these include timely and costly tasks like billing and reporting. But accounting isn’t the only profession that is gradually being rendered obsolete. 

Back in 2004, MIT and Harvard economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued that, because of the enormous complexity of information involved, a computer would never drive a car without human assistance.

Today, that prediction looks rather inane. Self-driving cars already exist; some of them have racked up thousands of miles on roads across the US and China. It’s only a matter of time before fleets of autonomous vehicles owned by behemoths like Uber leave human cabbies by the wayside; autonomous trucks will mean the same thing for long-distance lorry drivers.

Professions that otherwise have little in common, accounting and driving, share a couple of commonalities: they lack the need for genuine creativity; and they are monotonous and predictable in nature. Numerous other jobs—secretary, store clerk, cleaner—also require very little in the way of creativity. These are the kind of jobs that automation will simply swallow up.

However, perspective is needed. Talks of an automated apocalypse are overblown and unhelpful. Nevertheless, one important question needs to be answered. How can broader society survive the automated revolution?

One could be forgiven for thinking that machines are creative. After all, artificial intelligence has already created works of art and defeated world champions at chess. More recently,  IBM Watson created a movie trailer for the horror film Morgan.

Though impressive, they all benefited from carefully constrained algorithms. Essentially, these algorithms, which were produced by humans, helped the machines achieve a very specific goal. As John Searle persuasively argued in Minds, Brains, and Programs, such feats do not represent innate understanding. These algorithms are simply manipulating symbols.

True creativity involves turning original and imaginative ideas into reality. It is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions.

This creativity is possessed in abundance by the likes of sculptors and carpenters. Such professions require fine motor skills and lateral thinking, or the ability to solve problems in an indirect or unusual manner.

Creative jobs often require a high degree of dexterity, hand-eye coordination and flexibility. These are the very things robots struggle with. Skilled trade jobs like plumbing or joinery are safe bets for careers. So is nursing, a profession that requires high amounts of human caring and empathy. After all, we are comfortable with the idea of a robot cleaning our house, but what about caring for our elderly mother or monitoring our children?

Other vocations, like that of the humble hairdresser, are safer from automation than, say, data entry work. There have been attempts to create hair-cutting machines but the results have been disastrous. This should not be surprising. Hairdressing is a profession that requires considerable dexterity, and dexterity is almost impossible to automate.

What sort of future do we want for our children? A one-size-fits-all curriculum is no longer the answer. Was it ever? A “send everyone to university” mindset is myopic and foolish.

Many students would clearly benefit from another path. How about a career-centric curriculum? How about the opportunity to take part in an apprenticeship? Not everyone is cut out for coding and the analysis of trigonometric functions.

As Nietzsche wrote: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” By trying to get more students to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), claiming that’s where the jobs will be in the future, we are engaging in a form of collective insanity. Many of these jobs will be automated in the not-so-distant future.

The times, they are a-changin. Isn’t it about time that our attitudes to education also changed?