Our students need robot insurance.


Years ago Saturday Night Live shared a brilliant commercial parody for robot insurance to protect seniors from the attacks of robots wanting their medicine for fuel. Actor Sam Waterston authoritatively warns, “You need to feel safe, and that is harder and harder to do now-a-days because robots can strike at any time.”

There is enough fear-mongering around the future of our students, but we do need to realize that robots are coming and will change career opportunities for our students. There is a spectrum of concern around future automation ranging from possible robot domination liken an Isaac Asimov story to the languid human passengers in WALL-E. For some time robots have not only performed physical tasks but also tasks that fall under Artificial Intelligence. Both of these domains are increasing with back-flipping robots and computers that can beat humans at chess and Go. The combination of AI and robotics will be incredible.

With artificial intelligence, our cars will be self-driving, well before they are flying. Tesla announced a launch of semi trucks and orders from companies are already coming. Estimates vary how long to driverless vehicles will be implemented, but most agree it is within the lifetime of our students. Uber is even on the verge of changing it’s business model with the purchase of driverless cars. (Still think we need an Uber for education?) When you think about driver-less cars and the fact that driver is the most common job in many states, you can see that we are about to have a major shift in job opportunities..

Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?, by Alex Williams, was published this week and is a good  article for educators to begin thinking deeply about what this upcoming change in jobs should mean for schools. Williams explains even unexpected jobs like some lawyers, bankers, and even surgeons roles may be at risk of being transferred to robots.

So am I paranoid? Or not paranoid enough? A much-quoted 2013 study by the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science — surely the most sober of institutions — estimated that 47 percent of current jobs, including insurance underwriter, sports referee and loan officer, are at risk of falling victim to automation, perhaps within a decade or two.

Williams does balance this outlook with the perspective that experts share that even with more technology, more work is created.

Another talk by David Autor, an economist, argued that reports of the death of work are greatly exaggerated. Almost 50 years after the introduction of the A.T.M., for instance, more humans actually work as bank tellers than ever. The computers simply freed the humans from mind-numbing work like counting out 20-dollar bills to focus on more cognitively demanding tasks like “forging relationships with customers, solving problems and introducing them to new products like credit cards, loans and investments,” he said.

But considering the pace of adoption of automation and with it  no longer primarily affecting manufacturing, it is realistic to believe that there will not be enough employing jobs for everyone in the near future. This is not to say there is a finite number of jobs or that these jobs will no longer exist, but students are prepared for known and defined jobs that will be executed by machines.  One possible solution to this cost of high productivity is Universal Basic Income.

“Albert Wenger, an influential tech investor, promoted the Basic Income Guarantee concept. Also known as Universal Basic Income, this sunny concept holds that a robot-driven economy may someday produce an unlimited bounty of cool stuff while simultaneously releasing us from the drudgery of old-fashioned labor, leaving our government-funded children to enjoy bountiful lives of leisure…”

I have no idea what Universal Basic Income (UBI) would do for us or to us.  You can find many swelling economic and social debates around the conversation as it grows as a possible imposed policy. In our culture, we already connect our value to the salary we draw. People need purpose and social connection and technology’s rapid movement is outpacing our management of handling negative side effects. (We are beginning, too late, to understand the ways that social media combined with AI makes us more anxious, influenced, and authentically disconnected from others.) Regardless if we implement UBI, the seriousness of the discourse shows real concern there will not be enough jobs for those seeking one.

Sure. As we move to not knowing what work faces our students, development of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication are important. (These skills  always have been, not just in this century.) But we will have to go further than this alliterated mantra, because the implied is an assumption that someone else will be creating jobs for them to step into once they are done with school. The quite possible eventuality is that someone creating jobs will have to be them.

The insurance we need to provide to our students includes nurturing self-awareness and the ability for choosing work valued by them and their community.  Perhaps it is a pie shop, making handcrafted shoes, or helping others to learn how to sing. I do not know, but what students will have to know is that it will be up to them, and schools need to prepare them. Schools need to better balance agency with assignment, exploring with guiding, and conscientiousness with compliance. Mostly schools need to look less like standardized tests.

Students are living in a world in which what can be standardized can also be replaced. It is time schools joined that world.

Deeper Dive:

Will Robots Take My Job — Interesting website that allows you to type in a job and in return it offers how susceptible that job is to being automated. Pulls information from the above quoted University of Oxford study and from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If we do not figure out this job shift, we are going to need psychologists. I checked psychologist. It only had .43% possibility of automation. (Teachers are fairly safe, too.)

Two really smart guys talk about sociological/psychological implications of Universal Basic Income.

Universal Basic Income-Right now you are either thinking it sounds like socialism or coming up with excuses why it isn’t socialism.

Student Data is the New Oil — This article by Audrey Watters is from several years back, but still right about what is happening with data. AI is increasingly used to analyze data and there are entities using that to move us as humans. That is part of the digital citizenship we need to teach students.

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Using what I know about learning to help others.

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