Get ready for intelligent machine era

Now is the time to start equipping our children with the right skills to win jobs in new areas

By Author Ramakrishna Prasad & Swaminathan SB   |   Published: 11th Jan 2018   1:59 am Updated: 13th Jan 2018   4:37 pm

If you are a parent of a 10-12-year-old child right now and are fully aware that the child is going to start work from 2030, you should be deeply concerned about how the world will look then. The world around us is rapidly changing.

Intelligent machines have started taking over. Drones, self-driven cars, smartphones, chatbots, smart home assistants like Alexa are slowly entering our comfort spaces and disrupting our lifestyles with alarming intelligence. Whether we like it or not, these machines are here to stay and are heralding the intelligent machine era.

This is by no means a doom’s day prediction or science fiction. It is an inescapable truth that is staring at us today and it is our children who will bear most of the repercussions.
As a parent, it’s time to put on your thinking hat. If you don’t have one, here is the reason why you should be seriously worried.

Emerging Risks

The second half of 2017 saw Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, the two tech industry stalwarts who are inarguably shaping the world we are going to be living in, taking each other on the social media. The topic of ‘conversation’ was the threatening impact of Artificial Intelligence, the driving force behind the intelligent machines these days.

Musk strongly believes that Artificial Intelligence is a ‘fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation’ and Zuckerberg has a diametrically opposite view. And as a consequence, the world is once again divided between believers and non-believers.

One may be allowed to argue that both these gentlemen are driving home their point with vested interests in mind. Both need to uphold their respective brands and push for their firm’s revenue streams, but they may be also stating their personal point of view.

We may approach this expected change in the future with deep cynicism and extreme pessimism or with positive enthusiasm. Artificially engineered intelligent machines are going to take control of our lives to some extent and our children’s lives in totality.

So, the need of the hour is to question whether we are imparting essential life skills required to survive in this new machine era. Most critically, do you even know what skills are required and how to measure them.

Traditional Teaching

The reason is simple. The current classroom education system on which the children are leaning heavily on uses traditional tools and methods. These methods woefully fall short as the children navigate different stages of education and finally step into the job market, in the machine era.

When I took a five-year break (I quit my job the day my daughter was born) to acquire new skills to make myself relevant for my second stint in life, little did I realise that along with me, I was making my daughter learn a few important life skills that may give her the added advantage in the machine era.

What started off as an accidental discovery for me is now turning out to be a reality for all parents. As a consequence, parents have to decisively and immediately change the way they monitor their child’s education. And this is just the beginning.

Without getting into minute details, let’s take a look at the current K-12 education system that has been in existence for over 150 years now. The system was designed largely to cater to the needs coming out of the Industrial Revolution. It was meant to create a labour force that filled the jobs created by the setting up of the railroads and factories.

In the pathbreaking book Future Shock published in 1970, Alvin Toffler says: Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed.

The most criticised features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualisation, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.

Little Change

There are some visible changes from the past. The authoritarian teacher is slowly being replaced by a friendly one who is finding ways to listen to what the students say and then communicate with empathy. But that’s a small part of the value chain. The regimentation and grading are still the major cause of worry. They must be driven more subtly and intelligently.

As Dr Salman Khan of Khan Academy says, “the students have to be allowed to learn at their own pace.” This may be one of the ways to prepare the child for the demanding needs of the future.

But do we really do it? The race to enter the job market begins with the first report card the child gets from school. The gradation is more subjective and less objective as there isn’t much data to work with. And the regimentation at home begins based on the ratings provided by the institution and this method goes on till the child gets a job.

Learn to Adapt

As we are rapidly moving into the machine era some jobs as we know will now become extinct as the old skills will become redundant and new jobs will be created. This doesn’t essentially mean that many will be rendered jobless and the world is going to be taken over by the machines.

If some jobs are cut in certain areas, certain others will be created is some new areas. But do our children have the right skills to win these jobs? Are we preparing them to adapt, survive and live on?

If we look around, we will find that nature is full of different types of flora and fauna that successfully find innovative ways of developing their survival systems to make themselves adaptable to growth and change. One glaring example is from the reptile family. The snake shedding its skin is an important lesson for all of us to learn from, at this stage. Snakes shed their skin to allow further growth.

(To be continued)

(Ramakrishna Prasad is a freelance data scientist; ramakrishnaprasadnori@gmail.com, with inputs from Swaminathan SB, a startup mentor; swamisb@gmail.com)

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