These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Educating for the Rise of the Robots


“We’ve managed to slip evolution’s leash now, haven’t we? We can cure any disease, keep even the weakest of us alive and one fine day perhaps we shall even resurrect the dead, call forth Lazarus from his cave. Do you know what that means? That means we are done, that this is as good as we’re going to get.” –Robert Ford delivered by Anthony Hopkins in HBO’s Westworld

This quote, spoken by one of the creators of the lifelike robots featured in HBO’s science fiction series Westworld, signals one of the prevailing themes of the show: that androids, or artificially intelligent robots, will be the next step of human evolution. Scientists and science fiction writers have discussed the singularity, the coming of a time when robot intelligence, or artificial intelligence, would overtake human capabilities, since the 1960s. While watching Westworld, I wondered about what must be going on outside this vacation destination inhabited by remarkably human robots. What does the world look like when robots can be programmed to do such complex, human tasks? As an education policy wonk, the next question was, how are children and adults educated in this new world and what changes should we make now to prepare for this potential future?

I believe that now we have to educate students for the jobs that computers cannot and will not be able to do. Computers are remarkable at vast amounts of information, sorting through data and providing answers but still unable to ask good questions.

Most of our schools are still designed to support students to be more like computers and provide the correct answers rather than supporting students to ask questions and be the critical, reflective, creative problem solvers that today’s world requires. This will put our kids at a disadvantage as the nature of human work changes in the face of increasingly automated manufacture, service, medicine, and other jobs we have taken for granted since the Industrial Revolution.

Changing Human Work

As technology improves, we will see a dramatic change in the ways that our economy works. Our school system needs to be doing more than educating students for our current economic conditions. It needs to be preparing our kids to live, work, and meaningfully engage in a future that may look completely different from the world in which we currently live.

Computers are now better at chess, Go, Jeopardy and even at identifying human faces, among other things. Early last fall, Coors delivered the first truckload of beer without a human driver. There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the US, it’s the most common job in 29 states, and relatively high paying. It doesn’t take much to imagine the significance of this on our economy and our society.   

What happens to our economy when technology overtakes many jobs that we currently take for granted? Manufacturing, resource extraction, trucking, and many other jobs may not exist in the coming decades. President Trump has promised to bring back high paying jobs to America’s heartland and coal country. The problem is that those jobs are never coming back regardless of whether we reduce regulations or provide incentives for them to return. It’s a bit like calling for the return of video store clerks or milkmen. They are gone and for the most part never coming back.   

Contrary to popular belief, the United States is number two and projected to be number one in manufacturing on the planet even though the number of manufacturing jobs continues to drop. Interestingly, manufacturing employers have a hard time filling many of the highly skilled manufacturing jobs because of the ever increasing skills required by the remaining jobs in this sector.  The US is far more efficient at manufacturing than China by a factor of six because of the effective use of technology and robots.  And it is not just manufacturing jobs, soon it will be truck drivers while robots have just started to take away jobs in highly skilled fields like medicine, law, and journalism.  

Economists debate whether the jobs will totally disappear and we might have to support a basic universal income or if new technology will result in new jobs and fields.    

As a recent Economist article points out, “the two big debates about AI—whether it will destroy jobs, and whether it might destroy humanity—are really arguments about the rate of change.” As a society, we must prepare for the changes that will inevitably come along with the expansion of AI, in hopes that it will neither destroy humanity nor destroy people’s access to meaningful work.

Educating Students for the Automated Economy

Regardless of the outcome of the debate over whether robots destroy jobs or create more jobs, the fact is that most jobs will require a much higher set of adaptive learning, problem solving and communication skills than our current graduates possess.    We will have to retool public education so that a far greater percentage of the population has access to these higher order, more complex jobs. Robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will require us to educate students for a very different world than we did in the 20th Century.

The shift that public education will have to make is not dissimilar to what schools had to do for for industrial revolution. We needed workers for the factories and our public education system stepped up over the course of a century. Today, the stakes are higher because of the speed of the technological change (we may only have the luxury of a few decades or less to change) along with the standards getting ever higher to keep our workers ahead of the machines.

There’s a growing commitment by school districts to support modernized work/technology tracks but these programs represent a drop in the bucket for most jobs. Denver Public Schools, the largest school district in Colorado, 90,000 plus students, has been expanding these programs but even their work internship program only served 212 internships last year.  Developing more and better career tech programs like the programs found in St. Vrain, Denver, Adams 12 and Mesa school districts that imbed job skills and experience in high school will be crucial part of the education redesign mix. The toughest challenge will be to reset what is expected and done in traditional K-12 classrooms and schools. We can longer afford to educate most students for low-skill jobs. They simply will not exist.     

And the embedded job approach will only work if students are provided knowledge, skills and habits that can carry students beyond the first or second job post high school or college graduation. Robots and other fast-moving technological innovations will require that nearly everyone be a learner throughout their career.    

Back to the Future?

In some ways, the changes required by public education is a bit of a “back to the future” scenario. Retooling schools is less about teaching the latest programming language or prepping students for some regional job need that will change, it’s about giving students communication, scientific and math skills and then supporting students to lead and carry out their own learning.  

The core of a high quality 21st Century education should be much like the heart of what made the best of our last century’s education system. Those parts where students had to solve complex problems, create new sorts of solutions, and, most importantly, learn to ask questions that lead to greater understanding is the sort of education that will enable humans to stay ahead of the machines. And yes, grit, perseverance and hard work habits are important but not very useful without some of the other higher order thinking skills as the focus.

The good news is that an educational approach focused on supporting learners to think critically, solve problems, and create new approaches or designs, is not new or impossible to provide. It is, however, challenging to scale. Societies have been providing this sort of education to their elite at least as far back as Socrates. The new twist is adding technological literacy into the equation, something that Colorado lawmakers recently made space for with the passage of new computer science standards. It will be critical that students have an understanding of how our machines work in order to stay ahead of them.  

We see schools like High Tech High, AltSchool, P-Techand many others that have at their core a focus on students self-reflecting problem solvers and creators. There are other approaches like the Waldorf school in Silicon Valley that has no modern technology (where many of the titans of Silicon Valley send their kids) along with more “classical” approaches like “Paideia” that include a focus on the interpretation of primary documents through Socratic seminars, evidence-based discussion and written analysis. I am convinced that there is no one best approach but I know that schools will have to support far more problem solving, creative habits and effective communication in this brave new world.

The Rise of the Robots

While it is hardly a given that the rise of the robots will improve most of our lives, we do know that far fewer humans have an opportunity to benefit if they are in no position to compete in a world with the rise of the robots.

We humans still have a huge advantage but robots are catching up faster than ever, it’s time our public education system recognize the crisis we face if we do not radically retool public education.