It’s Time for Educators to Discuss the Elephant in the Room: the Roboticization of … Everything

“There will soon be an algorithm to diagnose your health problem, a driverless air taxi to take you to the hospital and a robot to perform surgery on you, while post-op or palliative care will be handled by a team of sociable machines.”
– Matthew McKean, Conference Board of Canada; In a time of robots, educators must invest in emotional labour

What kind of world do you envision for your future, or that of your children or students? Based on a spate of recent reports, there are ample insights into the design of the future, and you may be alarmed at what they presage.

If you care to glimpse into the world Amazon is designing you may want to watch this video clip from an Amazon factory organizing retail packages controlled almost entirely by thousands of robots. Spotting a real person is as tricky as finding Waldo.

You might also want to know about ‘Flippy‘ the automated burger-flipper now installed (at a much reduced hourly wage) at a California fast-food outlet.

If you’re having trouble digesting a ‘Flippy-buger’ and you head to a medical clinic for some help, you might not find many humans there, either. Medical roboticization experiments underway include patient intake as well the diagnosis of x-rays, blood, urine, various surgeries and discharge with AI-guided (factory-created) prescriptions and at-home guidelines.

In November 2017 McKinsey and Company released a report, ‘What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills and wages’, that estimates 800 million jobs will be lost to automation, worldwide, by 2030. That’s only 12 years from now! The report predicts that machine operators and food workers will be most greatly affected by this trend and that in affluent countries like the US and Germany (and presumably Canada) up to one-third of the workforce will need to retrain.

Or maybe retraining won’t be available because there just isn’t a viable future for redundant humans in a world ruled by algorithms and AI. That we are rapidly creating a globally-based ‘useless force’ that will dwarf the actual ‘workforce’ is precisely the premise advanced by Israeli university professor Yuval Harari in his research and bestselling books of the past half-decade. In this case, according to Harari, the ‘haves’ will continue to concentrate tremendous wealth and power, and the have-nots will struggle to subsist. On a global scale that translates to billions of have-nots.

The point for take-away here is that it’s time for a big-boy and big-girl conversation about the increasingly pervasive roboticization of … just about everything you and I can think of. It’s an elephant we can no longer ignore. Some of the topics ripe for discussion include the following:

Is robotocization a good thing, or bad? What aspects of robotocization do we most value? What aspects are most pernicious, and what might guide us in deciding how to choose or favour one aspect over another?

By any name, increasingly pervasive Roboticization is calling for our attention.

In his seminal book of 1985, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death‘, educator-author Neil Postman wrote, “People will come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think”.

While his focus was mainly on television, Postman’s insights seem remarkably prescient. Were he alive today no doubt he would also be leading educators in conversation about technologies that go well beyond undoing “capacities to think” to supplanting (human) thinking altogether.

Unfortunately, higher-level conversation about this in Education appears to be close to non-existent or limited to a low-level wrestling match pitting the teaching (in elementary grades) of computer coding to best meet tomorrow’s job requirements against SEL (social emotional learning).

The roboticization of … just about everything requires educators and educational thought-leaders to wake up right now to its rapid advances and begin to question its pervasiveness. Our voices are needed in a global conversation about this around kitchen tables, in staff rooms, on blogrolls and in administration offices.

This would be helpful to inform the future directions of global society but also education, which is also a domain predicted to undergo much evolution and uncertainty thanks to … roboticization.

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