I recently presented at the Raising Boys and Girls 2018 conference at St Stithians; we looked at the latest trends in technology, how they are shaping the world of work and what the likely implications are for education. Formal employment creates demand for skills but if companies are being disrupted and jobs are changing or being automated how do we ensure our children are prepared to enter this fast changing world? Many school leavers and graduates also start their own businesses and create employment opportunities for others, often making use of these same disruptive forces to build high growth companies. Understanding these trends is becoming more important as we enjoy the benefits of technology but also grapple with the fundamental shifts it is causing in the world. This article reviews the key points of the presentation and provides links to all the additional information mentioned.
The so-called “4th Industrial Revolution” is an era of cyber-physical systems that exhibit intelligence in how they respond to conditions and perform work or solve problems for humans. Most industries are affected and the rate of change has accelerated into “exponential growth” that has seen the rise of tech driven companies using frictionless, mobile-first platforms to provide very slick services, information, social experiences and buy-sell market places. I talked about Tilley Lockey who lost her hands through meningitis but now has a 3D printed prosthetic right arm that can “perform fine movements and change grip simply by flexing her forearm muscles”. Thanks to this extremely advanced bio-medical-technology she can live a normal life, “with my bionic arm, I’m like a superhero.”
Tilley’s new arm is one of many great examples about technology working for the good of humanity. But there is also growing fear that technology will start to take more jobs than it replaces and even rise up against humans; I’ve written previously about the rise of cognitive computing and the scary robots of Boston Dynamics. Large, traditional companies are also wary of new technologies, “Digital is the reason just over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000”, according to Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterne. It’s important to understand why this happens; disruption is caused by a discontinuity in business models and performance curves which companies fail to cope with. You cannot incrementally improve a candle to produce a light bulb, you cannot innovate a horse drawn cart to produce a motor vehicle. Both these perform a very useful function – light and transport – but the convenience they provide today is because someone thought differently, experimented relentlessly and challenged the status quo – and it worked.
Kodak paid the ultimate price for underestimating the power of digital photography; previously the 4th most valuable brand with 120,000 employees, it was a Fortune 500 global company helping people capture and preserve memories. Along came Instagram, a startup of 14 employees that disrupted the industry; in the same year that Kodak went bankrupt, Instagram was valued at $500m and then bought 3 months later by Facebook for $1Bn. Ironically, Kodak invented digital photography but they didn’t want to cannibalise their existing film and chemicals business; this is an increasing challenge – innovation is often about timing and trade-offs. Banking is also facing disruption with at least five new entrants expected in South Africa during 2018 that will aim to attract customers with digitised convenience. Brand loyalty in the baby-boomer generation was based on establishing trust; today’s digital natives are loyal to convenience – they simply won’t stand in queues or fill in forms and existing business models based on physical distribution models will face a discontinuity that they must overcome to survive.
In the early 1800s the so-called “Luddites” destroyed cotton mill machinery that they felt threatened their jobs. However every wave of technology in the last 140 years has actually created more jobs than it has destroyed; even Uber in South Africa has been a net creator of jobs, despite the violent protests by metred taxi drivers. If a job currently done by a human is predictable, repetitive and takes place under structured circumstances then a robot will soon be able to do it; if the job is unpredictable, unstructured and requires incomplete information to make decisions then it is less likely to be automated, or may take longer. Humans have usually been able to stay ahead of the technology – we moved on to more meaningful work and in many cases machines did the dull, dangerous and dirty work for us – which we never complained about. However now that information worker roles such as accounting, law and actuarial are being threatened it changes things and we will have to adapt again.
Pick n Pay is a large employer in South Africa and wanted to pilot self-service till points to understand how they could improve customer experience. This is already a common feature of leading retailers in other countries but local unions blocked it despite assurances that it would replace and create additional jobs elsewhere. When cell phones originally arrived in South Africa, unions also protested the possible job losses at Telkom, the fixed line provider. We already have a jobs crisis with 30% unemployment and although sentiment has improved, economic growth rates will have to rapidly increase to reduce the high number of jobless. With 40% of our work activities already susceptible to automation this challenge is significantly compounded and progressive education of the next generation of workers in this country becomes even more important. [Read this excellent FM article by Hannah Ziady for more insights.] Tertiary education funding has also come under pressure and innovative models such as Wethinkcode have responded by offering free software coding qualifications.
Artificial Intelligence is in full hype and we talked through how it has become popularised through exhibition matches of chess, Jeopardy and Go. In these games the computer knew the rules of the game, now there are examples where AI can learn the rules as well. Google’s Deep Q-Learning AI program was told to beat an old Atari Breakout game but it knew nothing about how to play. Q-Learning was only able to “see” the screen and was given a singular outcome to achieve; maximise the score. In his excellent book Life 3.0, Max Tegmark called it one of his “major jaw drops” when he saw how quickly this machine could learn the game and then beat it. It took about 10 minutes of basic training, 2 hours to become an expert and after 4 hours of training, it devised a score-maximising strategy that even the human programmers had not figured out – check the video!
Our children will inherit this trajectory of change and we are all responsible for not only influencing it but also preparing them. Parents and educators don’t need to be experts in technology; it’s hard enough being a great teacher, mum or dad! But we should grapple with these issues and lead the quest in our homes and classrooms for relevant, meaningful answers, however difficult and disruptive they appear to be. We’ve focused on teaching our kids to relate with other children and get on with their siblings in practice for a shared world of work and living. Perhaps now we need to teach them to work with machines and understand artificial intelligence – this is already happening as schools adopt coding and robotics programmes. Not to become a device-bound consumer of fancy apps and clever platforms but so that they can teach these smart tools and use them in their own quest for meaning and purpose. A great example is a very new and intuitive AI platform called Lobe.ai which students can teach to recognise hand gestures, emotions, instrument sounds, physics and even sign language and lip reading.
An excellent conference like Raising Boys and Girls 2018 brings people together together to grapple with all these topics. No one has all the answers but one thing remains true despite the change – the future is always brighter when we work together.