Information Age Education Blog
Robots Are Here and Lots More Are Coming
The title of this IAE Blog entry describes now and the future. My question is, what should our informal and formal educational systems—including schools, parents, and educational leaders—be doing about it?
We all know about outsourcing jobs to countries that have low labor costs. Perhaps we are less concerned about another type of outsourcing when industrial robots in our country and in many other countries take over jobs formerly performed by humans. This second type of “outsourcing” is decreasing the number of industrial manufacturing jobs performed by humans in the United States—a large and rapidly growing change.
A recent report from The Boston Consulting Group provides current information and projections for the next ten years (BCG 2/10/2015). Quoting from the reference:
The use of advanced industrial robots is nearing the point of takeoff, a development that could power a new wave of productivity growth in many industries and lead to changes of up to 5 percentage points in the cost competitiveness of major export economies relative to the U.S., according to new research by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
The BCG study projects that investment in industrial robots will accelerate markedly over the next decade, from annual growth that now averages 2 to 3 percent to around 10 percent. As a result, the total cost of manufacturing labor in 2025 could be 16 percent lower, on average, in the world’s 25 largest goods-exporting nations than they would be otherwise. Depending on the industry and country, output per worker could rise by an estimated 10 to 30 percent over and above productivity gains that typically come from other measures.
I find the second paragraph particularly interesting. What does “the total cost of manufacturing labor in 2025 could be 16 percent lower, on average” mean to people working in industrial manufacturing? Here is another quote from the BCG article:
The inflection point for widespread robotics adoption will vary by industry and country, depending on factors such as wages, productivity, labor regulations, and the ease with which tasks can be automated. BCG estimates that manufacturers begin to ramp up investment in robotics when the costs of owning and operating a system reach a 15 percent discount over the cost of employing a worker. In industries such as automotive manufacturing in the U.S., where it costs around $8 an hour to use a robot for spot welding compared with $25 for a worker, that point has already arrived—and the cost gap will widen considerably in favor of robots. Similarly, in U.S. electronics manufacturing, it costs around $4 an hour to use a UR5 robot for a routine assembly task compared with $24 for an average worker. [Bold added for emphasis.]
You need to realize that the use of robots in industrial manufacturing is only part of the huge wave of change being brought on by Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and that this has being going on (and increasing) for many years. I am reminded of this every time I try to use my telephone to get some help from a company, and I first have to communicate with a computerized telephone answering system. I am reminded of this when I go shopping, and see the high level of ICT used in the check-out process. I am reminded of this when I make an online purchase. I still think of it as a modern miracle when I can purchase a “special sale” online book for $.99 and have it delivered to my tablet computer in a few seconds. No human worker is involved in this process.
Finally, think about how ATM machines have affected employment in the banking industry. This is an example of training people so that the customer and the machine together can do what an employee did in the past.
The number of middle class jobs has been declining in the U.S. and other industrialized countries for many years. Quoting from the article, Job Polarisation and the Decline of Middle-class Workers’ Wages (Boehm, 2/8/2014):
The decline of the middle class has come to the forefront of debate in the US and Europe in recent years. This decline has two important components in the labour market. First, the number of well-paid middle-skill jobs in manufacturing and clerical occupations has decreased substantially since the mid-1980s. Second, the relative earnings for workers around the median of the wage distribution dropped over the same period, leaving them with hardly any real wage gains in nearly 30 years.
The major growth in jobs has been at the lower pay levels—there are still lots of jobs that require only a modest amount of education and offer only a modest amount of pay. For example, you might want to analyze the requirements for a high school diploma versus the skills needed to be a clerk in a fast food outlet.
Employers also have job openings at a much higher level—jobs that require good problem-solving skills and good abilities to make use of modern technology to aid in solving problems and accomplishing tasks. Indeed, employers complain about a shortage of qualified job applicants at this level, and this is one indication that our educational system is not doing nearly as well as it should.
My advice to the students I talk with can be summarized by:
- Develop your “people” and communication skills. Become fluent in face-to-face, written, and computer communication skills. If you have the opportunities to do so, become bilingual and bicultural.
- Focus your education on gaining higher-order, creative thinking, understanding, and problem-solving knowledge and skills in whatever areas you decide to study.
- Learn about current and near-term capabilities and limitations of computers and robots. Plan your education and develop your abilities so that you do not end up in head-to-head competition with computers and robots in areas that they are already quite good at and are getting better.
- Make very sure that you learn to make effective and fluent use of ICT, both in general use and in the discipline areas you choose to study. Remember, the combination of a human brain and a computer brain can increasingly outperform either one working alone (Moursund, 2014).
- If you are “really into” computers, continue to develop your knowledge and skills in this area, but also work toward gaining a high level of expertise in one or more other career fields. This will help prepare you for many of the jobs currently held by people who are not keeping up with changes in ICT, and for new jobs requiring a combination of ICT and “traditional” knowledge and skills.
- Develop learning skills and habits of mind that will serve you throughout your lifetime.
- Think about what you want in your future. What informal and formal education do you need to help ensure that you will have a decent quality of life?
What You Can Do
Notice that my bulleted list of recommendations is applicable in all curriculum areas that a student is studying at the K-12 level (and above). The importance of ICT varies from discipline to discipline, and the impact of robots varies from discipline to discipline. However, I believe that all students need to understand the basic ideas in this IAE Blog entry, and that all teachers and parents have a responsibility of helping students understand these ideas. Think about what you are contributing to this teaching/learning task—are you doing enough?
BCG (2/10/2015). Takeoff in robotics will power the next productivity surge in manufacturing. The Boston Consulting Group. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://www.bcg.com/media/PressReleaseDetails.aspx?id=tcm:12-181684.
Boehm, M. (2/8/2014). Job polarisation and the decline of middle-class workers’ wages. VOX Cepr’s Policy Portal. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://www.voxeu.org/article/job-polarisation-and-decline-middle-class-workers-wages.
Moursund, D. (2014). Two brains are better than one. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/11/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One.
Suggested Readings from IAE
Moursund, D. (February, 2015). Education for students' futures. Part 17: Folk computing and folk mathing. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2015-154.html.
Moursund, D. (12/24/2014). Quality of life: Working toward a better future. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/quality-of-life-working-toward-a-better-future.html.
Moursund, D. (10/2/2014). Seven ways to fine-tune your brain. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/seven-ways-to-fine-tune-your-brain.html.
Moursund, D. (9/18/2014). Disruptive innovations in education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/disruptive-innovations-in-education.html.
Moursund, D. (2014). Computational thinking. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Computational_Thinking.
Moursund, D. (2013). Education for increasing expertise. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/12/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Education_for_Increasing_Expertise.
Many voters and politicians in the U.S. are beginning to understand our inequities in distribution of income and wealth. I believe these inequities are a very serious problem and can (very likely will) have quite serious repercussions in our population. Some efforts are being made to address this situation, such as by substantially increasing the minimum wages. Our Federal Government currently is making very little progress in using its taxing authority to help address this situation.
Some of our very wealthy citizens are making very large charitable contributions designed to improve quality of life in this country and the rest of the world. That is good, and deserves appropriate praise.