THE BLOG

Why Do We Need Superhuman Capital? And How Can We Get It?

03/11/2016 11:26

OK, we know the robots are coming and they're very intelligent, if only 'artificially' so. And we know that they will be taking over tens of millions of white collar jobs over the next five to10 years. But before we all decide to just give up work, let's remember that we will still need humans - but they need to be Superhumans.

We're going to need Superhumans to design, build and maintain these robots and computers - and to switch them off when they go berserk as in the recent stock and Forex 'flash crashes' or start acting like HAL in the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film '2001: A Space Odyssey'. You may think this will never happen, but it's already clear that algorithms can go a bit strange or get hacked and it would be wise to remember this for when our computers and robots get really intelligent.

Let's start by bring education into the 21st Century
So how do we create the Superhumans we're going to need to keep our robotic household appliances, manufacturing plants, financial markets, transport and energy infrastructure, defence and international safety systems under control? Well, a good place to start, right now, today, is education.

At the moment, while they are in education for 14 to 18 years, we're teaching our children and young people to do one thing: answer exam questions. Oh how 20th century! We give our students an exam question then make them wait three months to see if they got the answer right. Sounds mad, right? Life is just not like that. On top of this we're kidding ourselves that remembering and writing stuff down is the only way to learn - even when we already know that students who can do practical things but can't write about them get left behind, losing potential talent at great personal and national cost.

Instead, let's get into the 21st Century. Let's teach our young people to be brave and resilient, ambitious and creative, leaders but also team players. Teach them why it is important to look someone in the eye, shake their hand confidently and communicate with real focus and coherence. And how to answer my favourite real - if random - question to prospective employees: "If you were a dog, what breed would you like to be?" For any future candidates, and if my team ever allow me to ask this question, the correct answer is 'Woof'.

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Let's focus on the things that matter to UK productivity
This traditional teaching and testing system has given us an educational challenge that cuts to the heart of our economy. When productivity is discussed, as it has been with alarming regularity for years, it is capital assets and infrastructure that are mentioned as crucial, with education and skills only mentioned sometimes and in some cases as an afterthought. This is hard to understand. The UK has a huge productivity problem what's not getting any better.

Output per hour worked in the UK is 18 percentage points lower than the average for the other six G7 members (full report). We also trail the major EU economies by quite a margin. In Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour worked terms, UK productivity is around 30 points lower than the USA; 27 points lower than France and a whopping 35 lower than Germany.

England is also at the bottom of the most recent OECD tables for literacy, and second to last for numeracy, and employer organisations such as the FSB and the CBI continually cite lack of skills as one of their members' greatest concerns (full article). So surely education and skills need to form part of the solution?

Let's stop dithering and start doing
We must act. We have no choice. Let's start early, let's start young - let's start now. Young people want this, their parents want this, employers want this - so what are we waiting for and what will be the reward for this investment? According to the Development Economics research group, working with employers including McDonalds, Barclays and also the CBI, the value of soft skills such as communication, initiative, resilience and team working - skills which contribute towards UK productivity - is around £88bn per year. The lack of these skills is not just regrettable - it's costing us all a great deal of money.

So let's not just rely on the robots. Let's accept we have a problem and work together to create the Superhumans we need for the 21st Century. And at the same time we can reduce unemployment, reduce the skills gaps and increase productivity. That sounds like a great return on investment to me - in a word 'Superhuman'.

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