Do intelligent robots threaten millions of jobs? What could this mean for our students?

Advances in artificial intelligence will soon lead to robots that are capable of nearly everything humans do, threatening tens of millions of jobs in the coming 30 years, experts have warned recently.

We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task,” said Moshe Vardi, director of the Institute for Information Technology at Rice University in Texas.

“I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?” he asked at a panel discussion on artificial intelligence at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Vardi said there will always be some need for human work in the future, but robot replacements could drastically change the landscape, with no profession safe, and men and women equally affected.

“Can the global economy adapt to greater than 50 percent unemployment?” he asked.

But is this a threat or an opportunity for the children who are currently going through education systems across the globe?

These children are growing up with technology around them, and is increasingly a normal part of life, but gaining an understanding of this technology is crucial, including how it all works, the implications of its use, and how it all can be reliable and efficient.

And what about education itself? Will robots, or technology, replace the need for teachers? The whole teaching and learning process is not all about teaching content in maths, English, history or any other curriculum area, it’s more about the non-formal learning that we experience in a school environment. A playground has many lessons to behold, and most of the skills learned within the school centre around social, negotiation or boundaries which no robot or artificial intelligence could ever improvise. We are a social species and our brains have developed over millennia but in terms of jobs of the future, what we see today will certainly look different in the near term future.

Today, research is focused on the reasoning abilities of machines, and progress in this realm over the past 20 years has been spectacular, said Vardi.

“And there is every reason to believe the progress in the next 25 years will be equally dramatic,” he said.

By his calculation, 10 percent of jobs related to driving in the United States could disappear due to the rise of driverless cars in the coming 25 years.

According to Bart Selman, professor of computer science at Cornell University, “in the next two or three years, semi-autonomous or autonomous systems will march into our society.”

He listed self-driving cars and trucks, autonomous drones for surveillance and fully automatic trading systems, along with house robots and other kinds of “intelligence assistance” which make decisions on behalf of humans.

For Wendel Wallach, an ethicist at Yale University, such dangers require a global response.

He also called for a USA presidential order declaring that lethal autonomous weapons systems are in violation of international humanitarian law.

“The basic idea is that there is a need for concerted action to keep technology a good servant and not let it become a dangerous master.”

To some, this may be a bleak analysis, but there is chance for the creative side of what it means of being a human to see these opportunities more optimistically. What we need to do, as educationalists, is to ensure that our students have the creative tools to ensure that they can work with these advances, to understand the workings and capabilities of the technologies that they come across, and to appreciate the full world around them exposing the opportunities which will become available to them.

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