The Necessary Skills for a Robotized Future

Today on the International Workers’ Day I thought it would be appropriate to contemplate what kind of work humans will do in the future. One way of approaching this question is to think about what the key skills of the future human labor force will be.

View of Pudong's skyline in Shanghai. Image by Pjt56, derivative work by NR and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

It’s easy to forget how dramatically technology has changed how we produce products and services. Contrary to popular belief the rise of machines has so far been a job creator rather than a job destroyer. This has been shown by several studies, recently by economists at the consultancy Deloitte with 140 years of census data for England and Wales. Machines have taken over repetitive, laborious and dangerous tasks, but working humans have by no means become obsolete.

But as we’re entering the era of intelligent automation, also known as robotization, the battle between humans and machines rises to a whole new level. Are robots going to eradicate our jobs completely? Will there be anything left for the majority of humans to do? As I’ve written in an earlier blog post, many are concerned that robotization will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

I would like to assume that despite robots and artificial intelligence (AI) there will still be many interesting challenges and working opportunities for humans in the future. In fact, I believe robotization will allow us to explore completely new dimensions in areas like science, arts, health, and entertainment. This will however require that we adopt completely new skills and new ways of learning.

The idea that we need to "learn how to learn in a new way” has been brought forward by many and recently by Professor Bengt Holmström from MIT. He claims that new ways of learning will be essential in a future where robotization displaces even those jobs that previously were spared from automation. How today’s societies and educational systems can support us in "learning how to learn in a new way" is clearly a major challenge.

In a podcast titled “Learning is about finding out what you’re interested in” the public thinker Jari Sarasvuo points to several interesting books about metaskills. The idea is that if we’re going to thrive in a robotized future, we need to master new metaskills, i.e. "skills about skills" or "high-level skills that inform other skills".

In one of the books, “Metaskills” by Marty Neumeier, five essential skills for succeeding in the age of intelligent machines are presented:

1. Feeling, which in this context refers to intuition and empathy. Machines will always be better at logical decision making but humans can be better at intuitive decision making. The same applies to empathy, which basically is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

2. Seeing, which is about systems thinking and the ability to grasp the big picture. It’s the skill that allows us to understand how components of a system interact to achieve a purpose. 

3 Dreaming, which is a form of applied imagination and the capability of being original. It’s about being able to see "what is" and in particular "what could be”.

4. Making, which is a generative approach to solving problems. Traditional problem solving typically involves only two stages, “knowing” and then “doing”. Making, however, refers to a third stage in between. It’s not just about "finding the answers”, it’s more about “creating the answers”, often with tools like prototyping and testing.

5. Learning, or rather learning how to learn, refers to autodidacticism, i.e. the act of learning about subjects in which one has had little formal education. There are also similarities with the thoughts of Professor Holmström. According to Neumeier, learning can be efficient only if it’s enjoyable. He encourages to find a “Learning Joy Zone”, a kind of a flow state, where the learning challenge is stimulating but neither too easy nor too hard.

Here’s a link to a video of Marty Neumeier presenting the five metaskills (30 min).

Whether or not Neumeier’s five skills are the most important future skills is debatable. It’s also hard to predict exactly how the jobs of the future will differ from the jobs of today. If somebody from the future would come and explain what he or she is doing for a living, it’s very possible that we wouldn’t understand much. Similarly, imagine explaining to somebody from the 18th century what a Chief Architect of Ambient Computing at Google is doing.

It seems however obvious that the jobs of the future will require different skills than the jobs of today. Just like the jobs of today require different skills than the jobs of the past. One thing is certain: the industries of the future don’t need their human workers to be robots. They have robots.