Rise Of The Robots: Technology Is Moving On But Are Humans Being Left Behind?

As the election looms, the familiar education, education, education mantra is loud and proud – promises of more funding for primary schools, grammar schools and the abolition of tuition fees. But as intelligent machines silently march on and integrate discreetly into the fabric of our workplaces, where is the investment for education and skills for our adult workforce?

If you believe it, robots are soon to takeover. I don’t buy into this fatalism. Robots will not take all our jobs, but it’s becoming evident that computers, robots, machines and algorithms are going to be able to do a lot of the routine, repetitive types of jobs in the future. And these aren’t necessarily low paid, lower skilled roles. Professional jobs considered predictable could easily become redundant to machine learning.

In fact, bots are already hard at work. They’re making workplaces productive, processes faster, and workforces leaner, rising through the ranks and pushing aside their human counterparts. Largely this has gone unnoticed. A few grumbles here and there as machines move in and take on manufacturing roles and a few surgical robots operating alongside surgeons in hospital theatres replacing our knees and correcting our vision.

Rather than resist, we need to embrace. Welcoming the bots and learning to live with them and perhaps even taking advantage. But that requires investment and a commitment to up-skill our workforce and provide skills for growth and change – a plan that addresses knowledge gaps, technical capability and an ageing workforce and stops us humans feeling redundant.

So what’s the plan? In 2014 HuffPost reported on an Economist analysis of technology and a research study by Oxford Martin School that claims 47% of all jobs will be automated by 2034. It went on to say that ‘no Government is prepared for the tsunami of social change that will follow’. It talked about how innovation has always resulted in job losses, but economies have eventually been able to develop new roles for workers to compensate, such as in the industrial revolution of the 19th century, or the food production revolution of the 20th century.

But as we pick up the technological pace, anxiety is building about where the next ‘lost generation’ is going to find work.

Should we look to Government and the education sector to come up with a plan? Yes of course we should but we also need to look to business, charities and the public to believe in it. Support it. And pay for it. Skills for a technology age is not just for the 20 something web developer. It is skills building for the 17-year-old social care student, the 40 year old welder and the 60 year old accountant.  

There are small welcome steps being taken – a national re-training scheme and lifelong learning which will open up some opportunities to upskill throughout a career. But I don’t see adult learning and investment in this sector being taken seriously in boardrooms and there is a noticeable lack of detail, vigor and funding in political manifestos. Post compulsory education, the onus on upskilling is very much with the individual and perhaps an employer willing to pay.

Of course, education for children and young people is important. This has long been the case. And in many ways that’s right. Our education focus should always look at young people first and foremost. But times are changing. The scale of technological change and the fact that we will all be working longer mean it’s no longer enough to talk about adult skills policy in one bullet of a manifesto. 

To work in our future economy we will need to be adaptable. Agile. Creative. Emotionally intelligent. And critical in our thinking.

Design is as the heart of the solution. The more we debate the skills needed to future proof our workforce the more design leaps out.

Good design puts people first. It uses creativity to solve problems, challenge current thinking and change lives. And it’s being used to drive economic growth and social change across the world. 

Gone are the days of design and technology taught at a woodwork table in the school art building. Yet I wonder if that’s still a predominant view of those making decisions on education today? I hope not. Because design really can provide the answer, open the door to new opportunities and provide people across the country with the skills needed for that next job wherever that may be and whatever point in their career or working life they are.

Future work and global economies are people-led and service orientated, driven by knowledge and technology. A robot cannot replace human contact, judgement, creativity, care and sensitivity. If I’m in hospital recovering from a knee operation I’d happily allow a robot to assist a surgeon in the theatre. But give me a human caring nurse on the ward over a robot any day. Better still, let’s design a robot nurse who can clean the floors and empty the bedpans to free up nurse time to deliver a kind and caring bedside manner. I think they could rub along nicely together.

Can a robot tap into unmet human needs and desires that led to the i-Pad, smart phone or AirBnB? No, the creativity that drives earthshaking design is not simulated by a mathematical equation. Built by it, maybe, but it comes from people, from an understanding of what drives us, changes us and speaks to us.

The humanity that connects us can never be replicated by emerging technology, devices or applications; good design knows this, and it’s why it makes life better because it transforms the products we buy and services we use, into something we need and desire. 

This is why design should not only be in the curriculum but also support training and development throughout our working lives. Whilst we invest in the technology of tomorrow, how we design it, use it, purchase and interact with it, let’s remember that the robots and technicians need us – human beings. And we are worth investment too.

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