Posted by: crudbasher | March 25, 2015

A Higher Ed Look At Futurist Predictions

I am probably a sort of futurist in that I like to predict the future. Actually, most people are futurists. The difference is I tend to go a lot farther than most people in forecasting disruptive change. There are a lot of stories published every day so it can be hard to determine what to believe. I mean, if they are all true we should have teleporters and robots by now right? 🙂

So here is how to look at these stories.

Some stories are about some researchers looking for funding. They take a technology with potential and spin it into a story that will change the world. However, these sorts of things can take quite a while to be productive if the technology is even practical. They just want funding for their next round of research.

Next, you have new tech companies making new products. These have a more likely near term impact but I have noticed that it’s the companies you don’t hear about that change the world. For example, Twitter. Nobody expected Twitter to change the way we communicate like it has.

When you read a story, you have to look at it in a certain way. Here’s an example. H/T brisbanetimes.com

Robots and computer programs could almost wipeout human workers in jobs from cooks to truck drivers, a visiting researcher has warned.

Driverless cars and even burger-flipping robots are among the technological advancements gunning for low-skilled jobs across dozens of industries.

University of Oxford Associate Professor in machine learning Michael Osborne has examined the characteristics of 702 occupations in the US, predicting 47 per cent will be overtaken by computers in the next decade or two.

I am very suspicious of studies. I think they can be manipulated to produce any sort of result the sponsor wants. Even so, let’s consider the idea being presented. Can robots replace humans in jobs? Well, automation and machines have done that for hundreds of years so yes it can happen. Why is this news? Well, the time frame and the scale of the change is what is new. Like so many technological advances, they are happening very quickly. In this case, the number of people displaced would be very significant and would happen faster than any time in history.

So there are 3 possibilities in any story like this.

1. It’s completely not going to happen. In this case that means that the progress of history will completely stop at this point of rapid technological evolution. That seems unlikely.

2. It will partially happen. Perhaps the change will be more gradual than we think and not as complete as the article suggests? Certainly governments will try to pass laws outlawing these technologies if it starts to hurt their voters right?

3. It will happen completely. Massive disruptive change just throws everything we know out the window. Millions of people will lose their jobs in a short period of time.

Finally then let’s look at how this will affect education. Case 1 won’t change anything. Life goes on as normal and people keep their jobs. Case 2 means a lot of people out of work in need of retraining. It is possible that will create a surge of people into the university system, which is not really capable of rapidly scaling up (buildings take time to build). This means that many of them will go online to get whatever kind of training they can get. This means many more online education players, which will drive the cost down.

Case 3 is the most scary. You have enormous swaths of the economy just blown away. Whole occupations just disappear. Governments can’t keep up with the changes happening. Some people will benefit tremendously but most won’t. The people out of work might just stay that way. After the crash of 2008, we have seen a decline of the labor force participation rate. This might continue. What you will have then is a need to retraining more people at once than at any time in history. Universities are not setup to do this so this would transform the system. As I have said many times, the school system we have is a reflection of the society it serves. At least it is a reflection of society in the early to mid 20th century. A massive disruption like we are speculating about will force it to adapt to the 21st century (or be replaced).

I go down this train of thought for every story I see. Not all of them are forecasting such radical changes of course, but some are. So here’s the punch line.

It is certain that not all these stories are true. But is it likely that none of them are? Therefore what percentage of this has to happen to transform society, and thus higher education?

This is the nature of the Stormfront of change that is coming.

Sleep well tonight. 🙂

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