Humans and the Rise of the Robots

Am I the only person who is currently terrified of Channel 4’s new show Humans. The show depicts a near future world in which obedient humanoid robots (synths) are gradually taking over a range of human functions. Starting with menial jobs the increasingly sophisticated programming quickly begins to eliminate the need for actual humans to do anything very much.

As the show’s brilliant teenager Mattie points out what is the purpose of studying at school in such a world. They’ll only invent a synth that can act as a brain surgeon.

Inevitably Humans treads the usual path of speculating what will happen if such robots eventually develop a genuine intelligence. Will they take over or co-exist? Will they have souls? The story is presented with the grim dystopianism that has characterised much British science fiction since John Wyndham. After two episodes I’m not exactly sure where the show is going. But I’m pretty sure that it isn’t going to end up with everyone learning to love one another and just get on!

Why Humans is scaring me so much is that I’ve just finished reading Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots. Despite its trashy title this isn’t just a novel version of Humans (there are plenty of them around if you want one e.g. Asimov’s I Robot). Instead Ford’s book takes a serious look at the employment consequences of increasing automation. Essentially his argument is the same as that made by Mattie in Humans. We can expect the sophistication of robotics and other forms of automation to continue to increase. As it does so and as the cost of automation comes down we should anticipate that jobs will start to disappear.

While we may not get a robot that looks like Gemma Chan to come and cut crusts off of our kids toast any time soon, it is not difficult to imagine a robot that can stack boxes or another one that can make fast food. When these robots emerge (and they already have done to some extent) the jobs in the fast food industry and retail are likely to melt away. Even when the jobs don’t go they are likely to become increasingly de-skilled. Ford offers the example of London Taxi drivers whose knowledge has become pretty worthless since the invention of the SatNav.

The usual response to this kind of argument is to note that such automation will only ever pick up the most routine forms of work. The response then becomes to skill the population up so that we can increase the higher skill forms of work. Even if this is possible (and there are concerns about whether high skill work can really generate this much work) it assumes that we won’t be able to automate high skill work.

I like to think that much of what I do is pretty creative and high skill. Ford tells me to think again. You want a robot that writes – StatsMonkey can already turn data into journalistic articles. This kind of technology can perform complex analysis and write reports. They have even developed software that can accurately grade student essays (now there’s a good idea). Most terrifying of all there are already algorithms that can discover scientific laws and invent new products. This is not science fiction, it is science fact and as Ford points out the jobs have already started to be lost to automation. Will I be next? Maybe not, but my children’s generation might not be so lucky. By that point high skill automation may well be calling into question the idea that getting a degree will guarantee you a job.

Ford is clear that most of the current generation of robots have specific artificial  intelligence rather than general artificial intelligence. They can do one thing well, sometimes a few things well, but they can’t give humans a run for their money in complex multi-faceted tasks. This fact might give us a few more years in the workforce yet although this is not necessarily true. I can do some analysis, some writing, some teaching etc. Will it matter if different robots take over each of these functions with each building on the last? Ford is however clear that we are pretty far away from creating general artificial intelligence, but he doesn’t rule it out altogether. And when it happens, he suggests, we better run! It is possible that the AI will be benign and philosophical like the operating system in Her, but it is equally likely that we end up with HAL 9000-style robot overlords.

So what do we do about this? Is it time to get a hammer and start smashing? Or should be looking forward to kicking back in a world of robot butlers? The problem with the robot butler option is that the profits of the robot age haven’t been very well shared around so far. If a business can eliminate labour it becomes more profitable and ultimately the owner of that business ends up much richer. The eliminated workers on the other hand end up much poorer. Inequality rises. Eventually this inequality starts to endanger the economy because robots don’t buy anything and the majority of human beings have no money.

This is the problem. Automation won’t drive a rise in living standards on its own. At some point we need to wrestle with this politically because the link between work and money is being decoupled. If we don’t find ways to redistribute wealth we may find that our societies and our economies become undermined by the rise of the robots.

Where this leaves the careers profession I’m not really sure. I think that for the moment we can probably still say that education and skills is the best available defence against the rise of the robots. We also probably need to say that we should get good at using technology and working as part of systems that use automation. Finally we probably need to remind people that life and career are bigger than paid work. But if this is going to be any comfort to people we are going to need some kind of progressive political settlement that takes account of the rise of the robots. Perhaps we also need to be encouraging people to think about their role in bringing such a change about?

New technologies and social mobility (where does career guidance fit in?)

Yesterday I attended a very interesting RSA discussion on new technologies and social mobility. I encountered a lot of interesting new ideas about the relationship between new technologies, social mobility online learning and online career building. This included some stuff about whether new technologies lower the threshold for entrepreneurialism and self-employment that I really need to give some more thought to. We also went over some familiar ground about whether we are living with a generation of digital natives (I say NO), whether MOOCs are just hype (I say YES) and whether there is a technofix to social and political problems (NO, NO and THRICE NO). Anyway in the aftermath I thought that it might be useful for me to set down a few of my ideas on this subject.

I think that the first point that I would want to make is that the provision of career support is an important part of the social mobility toolkit. Next week we will be releasing some research for the Sutton Trust which will argue that there is a strong alignment between the policy goal of social mobility and career guidance. In essence social mobility is about individual’s abilities to successfully pursue their careers and career guidance is about providing them with support to do this. Career guidance is both an individual and a social good: it helps individuals to progress in their learning and work, but it also helps the effective functioning of the labour and learning markets and contributes to a range of social policy goals.

We argue that career guidance can support social mobility in the following ways.

  • Provide access to information and intelligence about the labour and learning markets in ways that transcend existing social networks.
  • Demystify labour and learning market systems and support individuals to understand progression pathways and manage transition processes such as university or apprenticeship applications, the creation of CVs and recruitment interviews.
  • Engage with individuals’ assumptions about themselves and the world around them, informing and challenging them.
  • Listen to individuals’ aspirations and help them to operationalise these as well as considering alternatives.
  • Build the skills that people need to make decisions and transitions and to progress in their career (career management skills).
  • Broker access to networks beyond the ones that individuals normally have access to.
  • Provide mentoring and support to encourage persistence and remaining resilient in the face of setbacks.

Given this it is likely that an element of career support should be part of any strategy around social mobility. However, as readers of this blog will know, the government has substantially reduced funding for career guidance for young people which in turn has led to a considerable decline in the quality of provision in schools and colleges. There was originally some discussion that this decline in the amount of face-to-face service provision would be addressed through an increase in the provision of online support. However, so far government funding for online career support has been extremely limited and it has not seriously engaged with the offer that exists in the private sector to consider how this could best be harnessed (see my post from 2011 called the Government don’t love careers websites either).

In Careering Through the Web we argued that it was possible for online technologies should be seen as an important part of career support. We noted that they could play three roles in the provision of career support:

  1. The provision of information and resources
  2. The provision of automated interactions which used artificial intelligence to do some of the jobs that were previously done by careers advisers
  3. The provision of tools for communication which could facilitate communication with careers advisers, employers, peers and wider kinds of personal and professional networks.

Four years later the range of practice that exists in relation to each of these three categories has grown. However there has been little attempt by government or any other stakeholders to map this milieu or to consider what role government could play in relation to this.

In Enhancing Choice we argued that government should not seek to create a single careers website or web solution, but should rather oversee the development of the market in online career support. In essence this would involve three main roles:

  1. Stimulating the market by encouraging the development of new services and new types of resources.
  2. Quality assuring the market to increase citizen confidence in the career support that they can access online.
  3. Compensating for market failure by resourcing services that address key policy concerns (such as social mobility) but which the market is unlikely to meet on its own.

It is hoped that this offers a framework within which public policy actions in this area could be located.

However, it is also important to recognise that individual’s engagement with online career support is dependent on the skills that they have to utilise the internet. It would be possible to engage in an extended academic debate about whether these are new “digital skills” or whether they are often just the same old career management and employability skills resituated in a new context. For what it is worth I tend to come down on the latter, but in a sense it doesn’t matter, if individuals are going to make the most of the online context they will need to learn how to do this. Despite the fanfare of the approach of the digital native there is no evidence that suggests that young people find it easier than any of the rest of us to think about how best to use the internet for learning, work and building a career. This stuff needs to be learnt, it may be learnt by trial and error, but it still needs to be learnt.

I have developed the 7 Cs of digital career literacy (set out in How the internet changed career and Building online employability). These 7 skills are designed to offer a framework for action for educators who want to support people to develop their ability to use the online environment for career building. However, while such interventions have the potential to support social mobility, this will only be the case if they are available to people from all backgrounds and across the attainment spectrum. If it is going to support social mobility, it is important that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have access to at least as much career support as those from higher socio-economic backgrounds and that there is a concerted effort to support everyone to develop the skills that they need to pursue their careers online.

Free computer training

One of the messages that I try and push in the training that I run on digital career literacy is that it is important to convince people that they need to continue to develop their IT skills. The speed of change means that it is not possible to sit back and stop learning.

The problem is always, how best to do that.

I’m a great believer in trying to increase people’s confidence to experiment. You learn best by doing, and often new technologies change more quickly than training or guide books. However, I’m grateful for any resources that people use to support students and clients in this area.

So, thanks to Mike from the group that I was working with yesterday in Manchester for putting me onto GCFLearnfree which is an educational charity that provides free learning resources. They offer a whole load of useful resources including pages on general IT skills and social media in particular.

So if you are looking for a good starting point for your self or the people that you work with – then check it out.

Known knowns and known unknowns in my engagement with social media

I had an interesting conversation yesterday about the research that exists on career, professionalism, social media and the digital environment. All in all we agreed that there were hell of a lot of “known unknowns”, and also that there were a lot of “we think we knows, but no one has ever really proved it” floating about.

I try and keep some sort of a track of the literature in this area on my citeulike using the social media tag. However, my reading of a lot of this literature is that it is pretty fragmentary with lots of people carving out little corners to research but little systematic work. In terms of forming my own theories about the role of social media I have been strongly influenced by Clay Shirky’s work, particularly in Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, but these books only skirt round the edges of the issues of education and employment that I’m primarily interested in.

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve looked to see what other people are advising in terms of how to manage your career online. However, these books are generally pretty limited and pretty clearly focused on how to use particular tools.

In my own work I’ve looked at various different issues: how do students use social media at university; what is the value of social media for career guidance (also with respect to policy in this area and specifically in relation to blogging); how can researchers use social media for their professional development (and for social research). I’ve also looked at how we can support students to develop their digital career literacy, written up little experiments that I’ve tried on this and tried to pull together all my thinking on the internet and career.  Hopefully this body of work (combined with my regular outpourings on this blog filed under socialmedia or social media) provides some useful starting points.  However, I’d be the first to admit that it has been developed in a rather oportunistic fashion.

So what I would like to propose is three research questions that I would really like to know the answer to. If people think that these have already been answered then please direct me to the relevant literature. If not then please direct me to the relevant pile of research funding.

  1. How do the internet and social technologies in particular change individuals experience of the education system? How are educators and educational institutions using these technologies and perhaps more interestingly how are learners using technologies in unofficial and unsanctioned ways to support their learning?
  2. How do the internet and social technologies in particular change individuals experience of transitioning from education to work? How can we use the opportunities provided by new technologies to support this process of transition?
  3. How are people using the internet and social technologies in particular to pursue their careers and develop their professionalism? What are the dangers and opportunities that this presents and how do these interface with organisational issues.

OK, so those are three fairly big issues. I don’t expect to answer all of them myself, but they represent an attempt to define a clearer research agenda in this area.

Any thoughts?

The top 10 most viewed posts on my blog

Today I’m trying to encourage views on my blog. One piece of advice that I was given years ago (by Doug Richard of all people) was that if you are trying to improve web hits, just look at the things that do get hits on your site and write more of them. So what gets hits on this blog?

  1. Career practitioners conceptions of social media in career services is the all time most popular post on the site. This is a review of an interesting academic article, but also chimes into two of my main interests (and I guess reason’s why people come to the site) in career and social media.
  2. The second most popular article was my debate with Charlie Ball about his Guardian article. This had controversy and the scent of blood so I guess that is what attracted people.
  3. Controversy also accounts for number 3 in my brief report of Heather Jackson and Tony Watts decision to resign from the National Careers Council.
  4. The fourth most popular one is an odd one as it is a call for papers from the BJGC. Career and technology again I guess.
  5. Is my summary of all of the resources that exist to support the Blueprint for Careers.
  6. Is my innocent question about Which University has the best careers service. Once again the whiff of controversy seems to be driving hits.
  7. Youth Mentoring Across Professional Settings. My summary of a very good doctoral thesis.
  8. Launch of the Career Development Institute. An important moment in the history of the sector which is rightly attracting some hits.
  9. My discussion of university marketing campaigns (England’s number 1 University for Employability) also hits the controversy button which rockets it into the top 10.
  10. Career development and employabilty – same thing, different name? A presentation that I gave which also hits a hot topic issue.

So what is there to learn from this? I guess that people come to the blog when I either talk about careers and technology or when I say something controversial.

So if I want to drive hits I guess that is what I have got to do.