We go to school and university to build a foundation of basic knowledge, common references, and an understanding of the society we live in. In short: to prepare for the future. These are formative years in every individual's life.
Could it be, though, that we’re currently learning about a society that we’re leaving behind—and learning skills that will soon be redundant?
We’ve been asking friends of Katapult Future Fest what’s the No. 1 skill we’ll need in the future. Before you read on, make a guess: What do you think most people answered? It wasn’t programming and computer science, though those are incredibly important too.
What we need, according to most of you, is empathy, compassion and soft skills.
Curiosity, creativity and collaboration were also popular answers, as were critical thinking—and learning how to learn.
Basic knowledge about coding, how artificial intelligences (AI) work, or understanding the huge potential of blockchain beyond powering cryptocurrencies—this all needs to be a part of our education. Not all of us can, or need to be programmers, however. Understanding and being able to shape the AI-driven digital world is important, but the more you learn about it, the clearer you see that you can’t compete with the machines at their own game.
Instead, we should double down on those skills that are distinctly human. That’s why we’re not just entering the age of AI—but also, potentially, the age of soft skills.
If we do this right, we can create a future where the automation of routine labor enables us to pursue more meaningful achievements. Is this what we’re teaching our kids at school, though, or to young adults at the university?
If not, then we may still be educating a 20th century workforce.
The age of AI
We’re entering the age of AI. Most, if not all industries will be affected by some degree of automation. This is happening fast, and the ramifications will be huge.
Technologies like machine learning and neural networks, blockchain, robotics, cloud computing and big data are developing fast. They enable artificial intelligence, automation of labor, previously unattainable knowledge and insights, new forms of trade, and breakthroughs in areas ranging from governance to food production or medicine.
Yet, it’s probably fair to say, most people outside of the tech business have no idea how, say, machine learning works, or what big data is all about. There are, in other words, only a comparatively tiny number of people who truly understand, and are able to influence, the technologies that are shaping this future.
This is a problem—for diversity, for equality, for democracy, and for the economy.
Instead of trying to halt the development, we need more people to participate in it. Indeed, we need as many as possible—and as diverse a group of people as possible—to create our AIs and digital infrastructure. If those who develop the technology are not representative of those who will use it, and be affected by it, then we’re not creating the future we want. People from all walks of life need to get into tech.
To avoid a growing power gap between a tech-savvy minority and everyone else, we need to take a close look at what we teach and how we learn, from 1st grade through university, and beyond. That’s the tech side of this, but there’s also a human side.
A lot of what’s currently happening in tech will benefit society as a whole—whether you know how it works or not. Most people during the industrial revolution probably didn’t know exactly how a steam engine worked, but they could still ride the train. For those who could afford it, traveling became faster and much more convenient. The steam engine also put carriage drivers out of business, however.
The meaning of life
Estimates vary, but one study recently cited by The Economist found that about half of all jobs are vulnerable to automation. They also note, however, that this “could free people to pursue more interesting careers”.
Being “freed” from work isn’t unproblematic. For one thing, we need to make sure that, as productivity increases due to automation, that what is produced is distributed fairly.
But it’s not just about the money, either. It is through their work that many people find meaning. Work is social, it may give a sense of achievement and empowerment, feeling useful and contributing to society. If we’re not going to work, what will we do then?
Going forward, creativity, empathy, ethics and other soft skills may help people find purpose and meaning in life—no less. And we may still be working, just in very different jobs than those we have now. We don’t know what they are. But we can make a pretty good guess as to what skills we’ll need.
Traditionally, knowledge and qualification would be evaluated based on where and for how long you went to university, what your grades were, which companies you have been working at, and in what positions.
Self-educated people may be just as qualified for today’s jobs, however, and anyway this way of seeing and evaluating knowledge will be increasingly irrelevant. AIs will surpass us and do those same jobs much better than we were ever able to.
An education system that is streamlined to teach as many facts as possible and get people into careers at big companies, may soon be outdated.
When machines take those jobs, we must instead strengthen the skills that machines can’t take over. Those are soft skills. In this data driven era, we need to look at the individual with a different set of eyes and emphasize skills like empathy and ethics—that which is truly human.