Work and education in the 21st century
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - March 31, 2019 - 12:00am

Several authors and scientists agree that in the next 22 years, artificial intelligence will change almost every line of work from performing surgery to driving trucks, from food production to manufacturing, from accounting to processing loans. In the last century, manual jobs in manufacturing and agriculture became more automated. In this century, even service and knowledge jobs will become more automated. 

 Artificial Intelligence that responds to all types of complex algorithms will be able to outperform humans even  in jobs that require understanding human emotions and anticipating human behavior. What  will make this possible is the confluence of tremendous strides in information technology and, at the same time, in bio-technology. While most people are focused on infotech, the world is also experiencing revolutionary changes in biotech. 

Last Thursday, in my column, I wrote about a book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, warning us about the effects of the confluence of these two technologies. This new type of AI may even be better than humans at jobs that demand intuitions about other people. He says that emotions and desires are in fact “ more than biochemical algorithms.” Future computers will be able to decipher these algorithms better  than any human. 

“A driver predicting the intentions of a pedestrian, a banker assessing the credibility of a potential borrower, and a lawyer gauging the mood at the negotiating table do not rely on witchcraft. Rather, unbeknownst to them their brains are recognizing biochemical patterns by analyzing facial expressions, tones of voice, hand movements and even body odors. An AI equipped with the right sensors could do all that far more accurately and reliably than a human.”

The optimistic work scenario for the future is that Human-AI cooperation, through cooperation rather than competition, could create a host of new jobs. These new jobs, however, will require higher level of skills and education.  The biggest problem will be to solve the problem of those millions of unskilled and semi skilled laborers who will lose their jobs.

In the 20th century, it was easy to switch jobs even if you were not highly skilled. A farm laborer laid off due to mechanization of agriculture could find a new job in manufacturing or in construction. Even laid off textile or garment workers could find jobs in restaurants, retail stores or transportation. These movements from one job to another was possible because the transferring required little training. Mostly, these jobs required physical capabilities and not cognitive abilities. 

Today, millions of people living in Bangladesh and Vietnam earn a living by serving as centers for low cost manufacturing. In India and the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of people are employed in call centers dealing with people primarily in the United States. Using an American example (but applicable worldwide), here is how Harari predicts what will happen:

“Yet with the rise of AI robots and 3-D printers, cheap unskilled labor will become far less important. Instead of manufacturing a shirt in Dhaka (Bangladesh) and shipping it all the way to the United States, you could buy the shirt’s code online from Amazon and print it in New York. The Zara and Prada stores on Fifth Avenue could be replaced by 3-D printing centers in Brooklyn and some people might even buy a printer at home. 

“Simultaneously, instead of calling customer service in Bangalore (India), to complain about your printer, you could talk with an AI representative in Google cloud (whose accent and tone of voice would be tailored to your preference). The newly unemployed workers and call center operators in Dhaka and Bangalore don’t have the education to switch to designing fashionable shirts or writing computer code – so how will they survive?

If AI and 3-D printers indeed take over from the Bangladeshis and Bangalorians, the revenues that previously flowed to South Asia will now fill the coffers of a few tech giants in California. Instead of economic growth improving conditions improving all over the world, we might see immense new wealth created in high tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, while many developing countries collapse.” 

How do we prepare the present generation for the future? The answer, of course, lies in education. But, how do we restructure our education to prepare for a world that we do not know what will look like in 2050? 

Right now, schools are focused on cramming information into the brains and memories of their students. Board examinations are glorified and glamorized; but, the focus of these exams are memorizing definitions, cases, and formulas. In the past, this made a lot of sense because information was very difficult to access. 

Today, the opposite is true. In this century, we are flooded by too much information. They are just a click away using smartphones, Wikipedia or the increasing number of books and libraries available online. There is also the beginning of a deluge of courses and lectures available online or on You Tube. In this kind of world the last thing a teacher needs is to give her students more information. Even teaching students specific skills like learning Mandarin or writing computer code might prove useless in the future. By 2040, AI might prove much better at coding software than humans and a new “...Google Translate app” will enable you to conduct a conversation in fluent Mandarin and dozens of other languages. 

More education experts believe that schools should focus on teaching the”four Cs” – Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity.  Students must be taught the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve their mental balance in unfamiliar and stressful situations. Harari states: “In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again.” His final advice – if you do not want algorithms to decide things for you and your future, you have to run faster than algorithms and get to know yourself before they do. 

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on April 6, 13, 27 (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration, email

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