The Blog

Competing With the Robots Is Not for Everyone

It is the combination which is striking. On the same day last week (11 November) "The Times" reported on a study by Deloittes and Oxford University concluding that robots could take over one third of jobs in the next twenty years. It also reported a speech by the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, urging young people to study mathematics and the sciences rather than the arts.

Let's start with the robots. The advance of robotics is the second phase of the computer revolution which has already transformed our approach to the handling and processing of information. The changes so far have swept away traditional clerical work, introduced entirely new ways of buying and selling goods and replaced the mechanisms through which we communicate with each other, make payments to each other and store and access information. Thousands of traditional jobs have disappeared and others have, to some extent, replace them. The essence of it all is, however, that nowadays the machine does the work and the role of the human is to direct and control the machine.

Now with that experience to go by, what changes do we expect to flow from developments in robotics? Again many traditional jobs will be lost as warehouses and factories are mechanised, vehicles cease to need drivers, delivery men are replaced by drones and elderly patients are assisted to the lavatories by machines. Once again, the machines will do the work and the human involvement will be reduced to the less labour-intensive task of controlling them.

In the first part of the revolution, easier and cheaper information handling and communications led to a far higher demand for e-services and that was surely inevitable. It is a brave businessman who decides to make do with less information, or less advertising or less sophisticated documentation than his competitor, unless he is saving a lot of money by doing so. It is likely that we will see something similar with the introduction of robotics. Merchants seeking a competitive advantage will want the quickest and best possible delivery service. Demand for transport will increase as robot drivers make it easier to hire a car. Old people will not sit at home but will be more out and about - assisted by their robot carers. There will certainly be an increase in demand but whether the jobs this creates will be sufficient to compensate for the jobs lost is more doubtful. No doubt the robots will require some supervision but they will need less and less of it as the systems develop. Then perhaps robots will learn to repair robots and eventually we will just require quite a small number of highly skilled technicians of the top of the robotic pyramid. What then is the human population to do with the extra time?

It is now that we cut in Nicky Morgan. She would push the otherwise undecided student towards maths and sciences on the basis that skills in these subjects are valued by employers. But these are the very subjects that the robots will be good at and, save at the highest levels, mathematical and scientific work will be increasingly done by machine. A society with increasing leisure surely needs to focus on the arts so that the extra time can be filled in a satisfying and meaningful way?

That is not to say that technical education should be ignored. A modern child should no more be brought up without a knowledge of how to use machines than it should be brought up illiterate. Indeed there is much to say for a system under which specialism takes place later so that everyone will have a reasonable knowledge of technology and machine literacy and also enough of a grasp of the arts to be able to appreciate and enjoy them. That is the idea behind the International baccalaureate and it may well be the way to go - possibly followed by more general degree courses at university. What makes little sense, however, is to push students who are not particularly scientifically and mathematically talented away from the arts just because of employers' current preferences.

Given a choice of direction, students should generally go for the subjects they most enjoy because they are likely to do better at them. Education is a process of training the mind and this is best done when the student is enthusiastic. So what of the student who cannot decide? Perhaps the decision could be deferred by following a more general route. Perhaps they will have to make a guess as to which route will suit them best. Pushing them one way or another, however, is unlikely to help them to get it right.