Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

How we can beat the robot invasion

Our world is changing fast, writes Tom Fletcher, but all is not lost in the race to automation

Forty per cent of all jobs will be automated by 2030. Toru Yamanaka / AFP
Forty per cent of all jobs will be automated by 2030. Toru Yamanaka / AFP

The statistics are pretty frightening. The Economist estimates that 40 per cent of all jobs will be automated by 2030. That is a gentler way of saying that almost half of us will have to find something new to do and fast.

Of course, the kind of work we do has always changed. With previous technological revolutions, agricultural labourers became craftsmen. Craftsmen became factory workers. Factory workers moved to offices. The Fletchers were originally arrow makers – not a skill that has been needed for several centuries, sadly.

But what is different with the digital revolution is the speed of the transformation. The technological trends suggest that we will go through as much change in the next century as in the last 40. That is like going from wooden clubs to the atom bomb in a couple of generations.

This tsunami will sweep aside many industries. But it won’t just be businesses that go out of business, but also many ideas and political systems, and even some states. The invention of the printing press unleashed an era of huge change in society, as more people gained access to knowledge and the means to connect and organise themselves. Scale that all up for the internet, and for any individual, company or country that doesn’t think through its implications. The World Economic Forum says that whatever jobs we end up doing, the nature of the work will be a bigger driver of global change than even climate insecurity, terrorism, or the rapid growth of the middle classes in emerging markets.

So what can we do to stay ahead of the robots, and ensure that the next generation are prepared to be winners rather than losers of the Digital Age? It starts, of course, with education. Yet, in too much of the world, we are still teaching the wrong things in the wrong way. Unesco says that a third of the skills needed even for 2025 are not yet being learnt. Most businesses, from Walmart to Google, agree. WEF, which I visited last week, estimates that even in the more technical university programmes, 50 per cent of knowledge acquired in the first year is now out of date by year four.

So we need a revolution not just in what we learn, but why and how we learn. We need to be retraining our heads, hands and hearts.

Head first. Einstein cautioned that there was no point in memorising anything that could be read in an encyclopedia. Imagine what he would have made of Wikipedia? So instead of learning by rote, we need to master the knowledge of three areas: how human ingenuity has developed over history; how we have learnt, slowly and painfully, to live together, and the nature of the planet we are so lucky to live on. The combination will help future generations take those stories forward, through a rebirth of creativity, coexistence and protection of our environment.

Then, hands: we need to turn to the skills we need to succeed. The three key challenges will be how to learn, how to adapt and how to manage ourselves.


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Knowing how to learn will equip us to continue to seek out vital information, and apply it to our rapidly changing world. It is about constructing knowledge, not just extracting it. To update Einstein, the skill is not to memorise something from an encyclopedia, but to intelligently sift through the 200 answers Google gives you.

Learning to adapt will be essential to a generation on the move between countries and professions. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development experts are already developing a system for teaching and assessing global competences and, most importantly, the flexibility needed to adjust and succeed. This skill is the DNA of diplomacy, but applies to many other aspects of life.

And we all need to better understand how to manage our emotional and physical health, and our finances. Pioneer countries such as Singapore and the UAE are already placing well-being and moral education at the core of the curriculum.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, take heart. The character attributes that give us the best chance of success are learning how to stay curious; how to be kind; and how to be courageous. As Omar Ghobash argued in his brilliant Letters to a Young Muslim, we risk failure if we are too certain about the world. Staying kind is essential if we are to reduce global inequality, a practical mission as well as a humanitarian one. And learning courage also means understanding how to take risks, and even to fail – any self aware entrepreneur or leader can tell us that those are the moments when you really learn.

Jeremy Heimans, the Australian political activist, captures these challenges by suggesting that we need to shift from a Tetris to a Minecraft mindset. The world ahead of us will be less ordered, less structured, less predictable. Think of an Arabic mezze rather than a British banquet. So we have to find new ways to build solutions together, to collaborate and innovate, to understand different ways of thinking, and to thrive in diversity. I suspect that Barack Obama’s "Yes We Can" will be a more helpful motto for this effort than Donald Trump’s "I alone can fix it".

With the right focus on education of the head, hand and heart, I believe we will not just survive the 21st century, but thrive. We can ensure that our kids are learning about the future as well as the past. We can be more confident that the next Bill Gates or Marie Curie will emerge to help us tackle the new global challenges, from disease to climate change to artificial intelligence.

And we can be more hopeful that the next generation will be equipped to navigate – with their heads, hands and hearts – a period of great change, but also great opportunity. We can make it more likely that the robots work for them, and not the other way around.

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador and adviser to three prime ministers. He is an adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi and the author of The Naked Diplomat: Power and Politics in the Digital Age