Andrew McAfee, keynote speaker at Educause 2015, has been concerned about the division of labor between humans and machines for the past ten years. Back then, The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market by Frank Levy & Richard J. Murnane had just been published and the long term role of humans in the labor force looked secure. Sure, no one would be getting paid to add columns of numbers or to solve anything algorithmic, tasks that computers handled with ease. But when it came to pattern matching and complex forms of communication, humans were unchallenged.
Recently, that situation changed has so dramatically, that McAfee and MIT colleague Erik Brynjolfsson were moved to write The Second Machine Age, a reexamination of the relationship between humans and machines. He describes some of the emerging challenges in his TED talk, What will future jobs look like? Back in 2004, driving a car in traffic was a human-only task, involving pattern matching and complex communication. Google shattered this in June when they announced that their driverless car had logged over one million miles, “the equivalent of 75 years of typical U.S. adult driving.
To see for themselves, McAfee and Brynjolfsson persuaded Google to let them ride in the self-driving car. McAfee describes the experience as passing through three stages, ala the seven stages of grief. First there is 10-15 seconds of abject terror; followed by 20 minutes of passionate curiosity; ending with a state of mild boredom as the car simply drives the way we are all taught in driver’s ed class: “no speeding, no weaving, no middle finger; obeying all statutes. Like driving in an airport monorail.”
Another shock to the human-machine equilibrium came the day that Watson beat (demolished is more accurate) both Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy! And the progress of computers and artificial intelligence has only accelerated from there. Machines have taught themselves to play many of the early-era video games like pong (DeepMind’s Deep Q-learning) and even complex strategy games like Go.
Either to rub salt in our wounds or to position smart computers as necessary to help us humans, McAfee described the problem of HiPPOs (the highest paid person’s opinion), such as wine expert Robert Parker. People have historically trusted HiPPOs more than highly-accurate geeky scientific explanations and algorithmic reasoning. Indeed there is an entire book about the Predictably Irrational nature of humans, by Dan Ariely.
Hopefully, it was solely due to the lack of time, but McAfee gave only a short, abrupt explanation of where mankind fits in the future balance between humans and machines. At least in 2015, we have better common sense, more advanced social skills, and superior creativity. Presumably our institutions of higher education should advance those skills in our students while there is still time.
Wearables, VR, AR, and Looking Ahead to 2026
Capping off the discussions on the future of education and humankind, were Wearable Tech and Augmented Vision: Pedagogy in the Future and Looking Ahead to 2026: Trends in Technology and Education, by Bryan Alexander – perhaps the best session of Educause 2015 as judged by both the content and the attendance.
During the Wearable Tech session, Emory Craig and Maya Georgieva vividly described the impact Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality (the preferred term to Augmented Reality) will have on teaching as new products from Oculus Rift, Samsung, and Magic Leap are rolled out later this school year.
Mike Griffith described how he uses Google Glass to give students a unique window into self-assessments. When students present their project results in his Digital Cinema class, they are not video recorded from the back of the room. Rather, the presenter wears Google Glass to record the reactions and engagement of the audience (as well as everything the presenter looks at). The result is a dramatic and impactful learning experience, one that the students do not soon forget.
Bryan Alexander began his 2026 prognostications by setting a context. Education reform has had bipartisan support for the past 20 years and two-thirds of today’s students leave college in debt to the tune of $30,000 on average. Demographically, the US has a highly unusual population-by-age distribution. Compare the usual distribution in most countries in the world (the graph is Nigeria), with the US distribution that is much more consistent across age groups.
Two consequences of this peculiar age distribution are that US colleges will become dependent on attracting even more international students and perhaps they should start recruiting seniors. The 18-year old student is becoming a niche; the majority of students are adults and first generation students. Longer term, this trend creates a challenge for the country as the percentage of Americans in the workforce starts to decline.
Before he delved into predictions, Alexander admitted his previous predictions that proved egregiously wrong. He had thought that the economy would force colleges and universities to collaborate. With only a few exceptions, it turned out they compete far too intensely to collaborate. With the scandals over university president compensation, Alexander had thought administration pay might trend downward. He also thought that voter dissatisfaction that the highest paid state employees are college football coaches in all but one state would force change. But surprisingly, those issues have disappeared without resolution.
Here are some of Alexander’s predictions for 2016:
- The average student age will be 40.
- Faculty will be paid on an hourly basis.
- Many public universities will be privatized.
- The current spectrum of colleges will evolve into Hogwarts (that is, a few very prestigious and expense schools) and everybody else (namely, community colleges).