A life of learning can keep us a step ahead of the robots

“HANDS up if you have a job … and keep your hand up if you enjoy it”.

Looking around the lecture theatre during last year’s IdeaSpace, paw aloft, I realised I was in a minority. Possibly a minority of one.

The session was about the concept of a Basic Minimum Income, an idea that has gained significant attention in Scotland in the six months since then. The speakers covered the topic from all angles, crunching numbers and floating radical alternatives to the wage-slave status quo.

Work would be a choice, explained one. Those who wished could increase their basic income with employment, but others could spend time with their families, or volunteer, or pursue hobbies. Another had a quite different message: the robots are coming for your job … but that’s OK, because you hate your job anyway.

It’s not just low-skilled jobs either. In last weekend’s Bella Caledonia magazine, Irvine Welsh described the astonishing technological developments that have seen machines replace not only factory workers and checkout operators but surgeons and lawyers, too. It would be easy to conclude, as our correspondent Peter Craigie did in Monday’s letters pages, that there will soon be no paid work left for us humans to do, and the time for a Basic Minimum Income will have well and truly come.

But let’s not be too quick to write ourselves off as obsolete Workers 1.0, ready to be thrown on the scrapheap by bigger-brained bots. While the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland warned that nearly half of the nation’s jobs were at high risk of being automated, it was talking about today’s jobs. There will be jobs tomorrow – they just won’t be the same ones. We aren’t yet redundant, we just need a collective reboot.

More technology brings more problems – human problems. Facebook Live seemed like a great lark when a lady bursting with joie de vivre tried on a Chewbacca mask, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly when people started broadcasting suicides and murders. Presumably Facebook’s boffins are beavering away on a foolproof algorithm that will be able to filter these out, but in the meantime it’s taking on a whopping 3000 human staff for its “community operations team”. For a company that employed fewer than 19,000 people at last count, that’s a serious hiring spree.

A report published this week by tech company ServiceNow found that, far from stealing jobs, automation could actually create more of them. Its survey of executives found that while nearly 90 per cent believed employees were worried automation would eliminate their posts, nearly 80 per cent were confident that it could, in fact, lead to job creation. Of course, those worried workers still may have cause to fret – they’ll likely need to develop new skills if they’re to compete with the generation or two of digital natives who’ll be nipping at their heels.

Those who reminisce about the good old days of jobs for life often gloss over the physical dangers and crushing monotony of many such positions. The insecurity of precarious employment in 2017 is a health hazard too, but how many talented individuals have spent their prime years watching the clock in a role that saps their energy and enthusiasm? How much potential has been wasted because the right kind of opportunities for inspiration, innovation and lifelong learning are few and far between?

Rather than throw our hands up in despair we should take inspiration from Dorothy Vaughan, the formidable “human computer” whose story is among those told in the smash-hit maths drama Hidden Figures (how thrilling to be able to type the phrase “smash-hit maths drama”). Sensing the writing was on the wall when a non-human computer arrived at her workplace (the aeronautical research agency that later became Nasa), she simply smashed through said wall by teaching herself programming, teaching the entire team she was leading, then demanding a promotion. All the while dealing with the sexism and racial segregation of 1960s America.

Computers have got a lot smarter since then, and not everyone is cut out to be a technical wizard, but there will surely always be roles that demand human imagination, judgement and compassion – indeed, perhaps these qualities will come to be more valued than number-crunching and coding.

The thought of robots in care homes might be initially horrifying, but think of the potential for freeing up the living, breathing staff to chat with residents, lead music-making or craft activities, or plan excursions.

Scottish schools are already using technology to help pupils learn maths, and on Monday hundreds are expected to take part in a nationwide contest for National Digital Learning Week, using the game-based learning system Sumdog. Maths teachers don’t need to fear for their jobs just yet – on the contrary, anything that makes their subject fun is likely to keep them in demand. When technology can free up teachers to give one-on-one help to those who are struggling, or indeed challenge those who are excelling, it must surely be embraced.

So let’s not worry about machines taking jobs that no-one really wanted anyway, lightening our workloads, saving us time and liberating us from the life’s drugery. Every sci-fi fan knows the real danger is them developing a collective consciousness and plotting to enslave or exterminate us. Bring on the robots – just make sure everyone’s been taught how to switch them off.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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