Already 15 years ago, a computer named HAL 9000 became intelligent. OK,  right: it was only a movie. However, it looks like we’re not so far away from that possibility. Computers nowadays already learn by themselves. Does that make a difference to the way we learn and teach?

Now that a computer is almost able to do automatically most of the things, and moreover, knowing that in a near future, it will certainly be, what’s the value of education?

I find myself asking myself this same question quite often. Specially in times like this, when the course is starting. What do I want my students to learn?Which concepts should I explain  them? How should I encourage them to learn?  I usually summarize all the questions in a single question: which new tools will my students handle after they attend my course?

This summer I’ve happened to listen to two different podcasts which, from a different perspective, deal with how machine learning and robots will change our future.

The first of them was a Planet Money program called “The sewing robot”. It tells the story a company that is developing a sewing robot. Believe or not, sewing is one of the few things robots aren’t yet able to do that well. That’s the reason most of your clothes are made in countries like Thailand, China, or Pakistan. Just because they have to be hand sewn, and salaries are cheaper there.

So, if a robot is able to do a man’s work, it will mean fewer people working, and fewer salaries to be paid. However, there is a hope for humanity (as said in 13:58):

You will need some people to work in the factory, mostly to take care of the robots, so this is fewer jobs requiring a fair bit of education and probably paying pretty decent salaries. This is what manufacturing looks like in America now. It’s not factories where you can walk in the door straight out of the high school with no real training and have a solid lifelong job. Jobs like that are not coming back.

So that’s a good thing to me, as an educator. People must study more and more and, hence, my job is safe and sound. Right? Maybe not, because, on the other hand, computers are able to replace my job. You can already watch wonderful lectures in places such as  the Khan Academy or YouTube. Moreover, computers are even able to grade exams.

That’s when the other podcast, a TED talk by Anthony Goldbloom, The jobs we’ll lose to machines — and the ones we won’t, came on my way. Goldbloom explains that Oxford scientists concluded that “one in every two jobs have a high risk of being automated by machines”. Machines are nowadays able to learn, and that means that they’re able to make better decisions than a person since they are able to put together much more knowledge and experience. That means they can replace even those jobs you would think they’re not able to do. In my case, they’re already able to grade exams and essays.

What’s the value of my work as a professor? It is not, of course, grading exams.

What’s the value of your knowledge? It is not, of course, the facts you’ve memorized.

As a sort of an answer: as Anthony Goldbloom tells, machines always follow rules, they always require some kind of algorithm to tell them what to do. On the other hand, humans are much better dealing with novel situations, creating and developing new ideas, making connections among things to come up with new ideas.

Education is about preparing for the future. It’s about providing yourself useful tools. Keep in mind that we’re only certain that the future is uncertain. So when learning and teaching, you should prepare for that unknown future. Now think: what’s in your backpack? Is it full of meaningless data? Or is it full of useful tools, concepts, and abilities?

2 thoughts on “What’s in your backpack? (About the value of education)

  1. But you need data to make creative connections, right? Some sort of meaningless data can give you the key to solve a problem.

    1. Of course, that’s the main problem of teaching computers. The set of data you give them may completely change the resulting knowledge. Still a matter now, but there are many people working on that.

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