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Should We Be Afraid of Robots Taking Our Jobs?

Zorela Georgescu Zorela Georgescu

We accepted them as our cashiers, our bank tellers, our travel agents. We looked on in wonder as they made our coffee, delivered our packages. How will we feel when they show up to drive us to work? When they go to work for us?

Not magicians, not fairy godmothers. Robots. They’re here, and they’re not showing any signs of backing off. As a result of momentous developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, about half of the world’s activities are vulnerable to be automated by 2050, reveals new research by Mckinsey Global Institute. While we should be worried about automation’s effects on our workforce, AI-related advancements in ed-tech could help mitigate those effects.

Employers are increasingly choosing robots over humans, like former Mcdonald’s CEO Ed Rensi, who cringingly joked that he’d prefer a $35,000 robotic arm over an employee “who’s inefficient bagging french fries for $15 an hour.” The Mckinsey report reveals, however, that it isn’t just entry-level, low-skill work that’s subject to automation–many administrative and analytical jobs are likely on the chopping block. These sorts of jobs have long provided important social mobility to people without formal education. That’s a problem. However, if AI-enabled education can help prepare more of us for non-automatable roles, then it could help provide a way forward for many of those disenfranchised by automation.

The value of artificial intelligence, for employers, lies in the inherit reduction in error and increase in speed and efficiency. In the face of the obvious anxiety that comes with a future ruled by robots, Jennifer Rexford, Princeton University’s head of computer science, asks us to flip the question: “What are robots not good at?” In answering her question, we must simply look at the aspects of every role — white collar, blue collar, administrative, labor-intensive — and focus on the aspects that are utterly un-automatable. Creativity, problem-solving, social perceptiveness, teamwork, and leadership — all skills that many employers describe as “soft skills.”

Rather than compare value, compete, and be threatened by robots, we can consider their value as complementary to ours. Artificial intelligence has enormous capability to shape our future work-force through advancements in ed-tech. A.I in U.S. education will grow by 47.5% from 2017-2021, according to the Artificial Intelligence Market in the US Education Sector Report. The future of our workforce depends on people being able to hone in on, and capitalize on the things that make them individuals — that make them human. A.I can do just that through advancements in personalized and custom learning. Through testing and feedback, students can discover their strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for growth and improvement.

In addition, A.I can serve to bridge the gap between teaching and learning through digital resources for educators. By promoting efficiency and personalization, and streamlining admin tasks, teachers are free to provide support, direction, and understanding — all uniquely human characteristics.

While honing the skills that are complementary to robots, ed-tech professionals and educators alike may also consider focusing on the skills — particularly those involved in STEM, that will allow our future labor force to work alongside robots. We must encourage students of diverse backgrounds to become interested in and involved with the robotics and development of AI tools. Robots may carry out the processing, but it is our individual insights, experiences, and expertise that give those actions form.

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