Information Age Education
   Issue Number 137
May, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the sixth in a series of IAE Newsletters focusing on possible futures of education. The unifying theme is the exploration of changes to our current system that have a good chance of substantially improving the education that our students are obtaining.

Education for Students’ Futures
Part 6: The Second Machine Age 

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor
University of Oregon

“Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” (François-Marie Arouet, nom de plum Voltaire; French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher; 1694–1778).


This is the second of two IAE Newsletters based on The Second Machine Age by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2014). See the videos McAfee (June, 2013) and McAfee (September, 2012) for a summary of the key ideas covered in the book. The first newsletter focused on the First Machine Age (the Industrial Age) and changes it produced throughout the world.

The Industrial Age provided us with many tools that supplemented our muscle and other physical abilities. Our current educational system is a direct product of changes brought about by the early years of the Industrial Age.

Changes in the Job Market

This IAE Newsletter focuses on the Second Machine Age (often called the Information Age). We are now nearly 60 years into the Information Age. Humans continue to develop better aids to their physical capabilities, and are making very rapid progress in developing brain tools as aids to their metal capabilities. We now live in a world with global transportation and communication systems that facilitate distribution of the results of physical and brain work around the world. This is producing a worldwide competition for jobs.

Moreover, computers continue to gain in their artificial intelligence and physical capabilities. Jobs that used to require considerable manual dexterity, strength and stamina, intelligence, and education are being taken over by computers.

In many other jobs, a computer and a person working together can far outperform a person working alone. For example, I remember many years ago when the cost of a computer work-station designed for doing computer graphics first decreased to about $200,000. Many thousands of these machines were sold—because it was economically beneficial to companies to provide certain quite skilled workers with such a machine in order to increase their productivity.

A company’s profits were increased by providing certain of its workers with a $200,000 computer! Now much more powerful computers are a hundred times cheaper. In the economically developed countries such as the United States, nearly every worker who can benefit by having access to a personal computer now has such access. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of workers have become more productive because they can routinely make use of a computer, and many of these are connected to the Internet.

A Thought Experiment

Albert Einstein used the concept of thought experiments to help people understand some of his ideas about relativity. The next two paragraphs provide a somewhat modified version of the thought experiment that Brynjolfsson and McAfee use to illustrate what is happening in the job market.

Think about a robot that has the physical and mental abilities to do the same work as a human. Suppose that a human who is doing this job receives wages and benefits that total $16 per hour, and that the robot can do the same job for a cost of $15 per hour. This $15 per hour covers the full costs, including maintenance, repair, periodic updates, and replacement after it wears out. Then in this particular job situation, some human workers will be displaced by robots. Others may take a decrease in wages so that they remain competitive with such robots.

Now, suppose that a new type of robot comes on the market that costs only $5 per hour, and is still more versatile and productive than the first type of robot. Few workers will be willing to work for $5 per hour—an amount far below the U.S. Federal minimum wage. Such a robot will displace many millions of workers.

This direct displacement of workers is just now beginning to happen in the economically developed countries throughout the world. Brynjolfsson and McAfee present information about a robot named Baxter that costs only $4 per hour. It is quite versatile and can easily be taught new tasks. Click here to see a video showing Baxter in action.

Current Impacts of the Information Age

The previous Newsletter reported Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s observation that the Industrial Age took many years to have a worldwide impact.  Similarly, it has taken a great many years for the Information Age to reach a level that is significantly changing the world. These years have now passed, and the pace of change is accelerating even more rapidly. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” is a good summary of the changes that are occurring.

As economists, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are particularly interested in the adage, “follow the dollar.” Quoting from their book:

"Between 1983 and 2009, Americans became vastly wealthier overall as the total value of their assets increased. However, as noted by economists Ed Wolff and Sylvia Allegretto, the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution actually saw a net decrease in their wealth. Taken as a group, the top 20 percent got not just 100 percent of the increase, but more than 100 percent…. [Indeed,] between 2002 and 2007, the top 1 percent got two-thirds of all of the profits from growth in the U.S, economy.”


People like to summarize this situation by saying that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. This is a quite misleading statement. The quality of life of the average poor person in the U.S. has improved substantially. Think about the advances in medicine, as polio, smallpox, and measles have been nearly wiped out in the U.S. Think about the free availability of access to the Internet and Web in schools, libraries, and “hot spots” throughout the country. Think about free electronic games that run on quite inexpensive handheld devices.

In another analysis of this situation, Brynjolfsson and McAfee note that during the Industrial Age, and continuing until about 1995 in the United States, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew very substantially. The percentage of the GDP paid to wage earners remained constant. That is, as the GDP increased more rapidly than the workforce, workers grew wealthier. With the exception of times of depression, employment levels were relatively stable over a period of 200 years. Many economists came to believe that all we needed to do to create new jobs and help the poor move out of poverty was to continue to “grow” the GDP.

Beginning in about 1995, this long-held assumption has proven incorrect. For well-educated and highly skilled workers (for example, those with a college degree) employment and wages have continued to follow the long-held trend. But, on average, other workers have lost ground. Their “share” of the GDP has fallen significantly, the number of well-paying jobs available to them has decreased, and many of the fulltime jobs they previously held have become part-time jobs. This is a huge change in employment, and it is happening throughout the economically developed nations of the world.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee note that we are making good progress in having driverless cars and trucks, and that this will eventually lead to major changes in the trucking industry. They also discuss the current state of the art of natural language translation systems. These systems are now becoming accurate enough to provide useful translations of both text and voice input. Google currently provides free translation of text in about 70 languages. Computerized voice to voice translation has reached a useful level. The authors talk about the computer system Watson that excelled in the TV game show Jeopardy, and that eventually will become a routine aid to medical doctors. These, and many other changes, are on the horizon.

According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, this trend will continue indefinitely into the future. As robots become more and more physically and mentally capable, they will displace more and more workers. This leaves the U.S. and many other countries with a major and growing problem. As noted in the quotation at the beginning of this newsletter, “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” What happens as more and more young people—even those with college degrees—are unable to find employment that pays a “family wage?”

Solutions

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss three aspects of problems being created by the Second Machine Age. In brief summary they believe:
  1. The problems are growing slowly, and we understand the problems. Governments can take actions to ensure that all people in their countries have a decent standard of living. With steadily growing productivity in a country like the U.S., there is absolutely no reason why so many children are growing up in poverty and so many older people are living in poverty. Current and future technologies can produce enough so that no one need live in poverty. Our methods of distributing goods and services need to change so that all people have a decent standard of living. Brynjolfsson and McAfee explore various ways this can be accomplished.

  2. We can educate people so they can live happy, creative, meaningful lives independently of their level and type of employment. This reminds me of the many actors, artists, dancers, musicians, and other creative and performing artists whose real passion and joy in life does not come from their “day jobs.” I am also reminded of the many retired people (including myself) who are not diminished by no longer having paid employment. Our days are filled by: communicating with and interacting with relatives and colleagues; volunteerism; travel; making use of telephones, television, the Internet and the Web; electronic and non-electronic games; reading; hobbies; and other interesting activities.

  3. We can improve our educational system to better prepare workers to work with computers rather than to compete with them. The statement, “Computers are here to stay,” now seems rather trite. A more modern statement is, “Intelligent, versatile robots are here to stay.” Brynjolfsson and McAfee provide examples in which humans and computers working together can easily surpass computers or humans working alone.
Notice that two of the above statements focus on education. Currently in the U.S., many politicians and other leaders say that the goals of precollege education are to prepare students for jobs and to prepare them for college. To me, this seems far too restrictive. I like to think in terms of preparing these students for responsible, productive, and self-fulfilling adulthood—and lifelong learning for dealing with change.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee point out that there also are many current jobs that will not be much changed in the near future by computer technology. Their list includes carpenters, cooks, dentists, gardeners, home health aides, janitors, and repair people. Human teachers will continue to play an invaluable role in our informal and formal educational systems. Robots are still quite far from being able to provide many of the personal services that people provide for each other.

Education and Technology

Brynjolfsson and McAfee repeatedly emphasize the need for students to learn to work with computer technology rather than trying to learn to compete with it. Some of this learning is occurring via our informal educational system. Watch youngsters as they use their smart phones to access information, store information (including music and videos), communicate, broadly share their ideas, take and share digital still and video pictures, and so on. While many adults have kept pace with these youngsters in mastering this very rapid technological progress, many others have not.

Our precollege schools and systems of higher education are gradually adjusting to students of all ages having routine access to smart phones, computer tablets, laptops, electronic games, the Internet, and the Web. So far, however, they are having trouble appreciating Marshall McLuhan’s statement, “The medium is the message” and his ideas about “global village.” We have a long way to go before the average adult understands the concept of being a citizen of the world, that we live in a global village, and that computer technology is now ubiquitous and still rapidly improving.

Computer-based instruction provides an excellent example of a very significant coming change in our educational systems. By 1985, there had been enough research on computer-based instruction (computer-assisted learning, CAL) that meta-studies (studies of the published studies) were beginning to be done. Evidence was mounting on the effectiveness of this new aid to teaching and learning. Researchers and developers in the area of Highly Interactive Intelligent Computer-Assisted Learning (HIICAL) envision a future in which all students have routine access to modern CAL that provides individualized instruction and high quality formative assessment feedback to students in whatever areas they want to study.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as an example of technology now being able to provide free or quite inexpensive coursework to the world. Imagine a future in which every student has a computer tablet and routine access to HIICAL-based MOOCs that cover the entire curriculum. Looking a little further into the future, what should education look like when many homes have a walking, talking, artificially intelligent robot that can serve as a child’s companion, playmate, and tutor? What roles will parents and teachers play in raising and educating children? What informal and formal education is needed to appropriately educate parents and teachers for their changing roles?

Final Remarks

We are just at the beginning of the changes that will be brought about by the continued research, development, and broad use of computer technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss the bounties that this will bring to the people of the world. But, they also point out the likely continued growth in the inequalities between the very rich and the very poor. They point out the problems people and governments face as jobs become scarcer and unemployment and under-employment steadily grow.

The education that people need in order to cope with such changes is quite different from what most are receiving via our current formal educational systems. All of us need to have an understanding of these changes. And, all of us need to become engaged in educating ourselves and others to effectively deal with such changes.

References

Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: W.W. Norton.

Brynjolfsson, E., & McAfee, A. (January, 2012). “Race against the machine: How the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity, and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy.” MIT Sloan School of Management. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from http://ebookbrowsee.net/brynjolfsson-mcafee-race-against-the-machine-pdf-d344680524.

McAfee, A. (June, 2013). “What will future jobs look like?” TED Talks. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mcafee_what_will_future_jobs_look_like.

McAfee, A. (September, 2012). “Are droids taking our jobs?” TED Talks. Retrieved 4/11/2014 from http://www.ted.com/talks/andrew_mcafee_are_droids_taking_our_jobs.

Moursund, D. (5/1/2014). Hungry Children—America's Shame. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/13/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/hungry-children-america-s-shame.html.


Author


David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See http://iae-pedia.org/David_Moursund_Books.

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iae-pedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell. Email: moursund@uoregon.edu.


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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.