The Robots Are Coming… And They Want Your Job

Published in Vice on 13 Sep 2018

Experts believe that almost a third of the global workforce will be automated by 2030. But are universities preparing students for the rise of the office machines?

Illustrations by Alex Jenkins

Had you popped into the equity trading floor at Goldman Sachs’ New York headquarters in 2000, you would have walked into a bloodbath of the senses: 500 men and women projectile swearing, phones blaring, the dizzying aroma of adrenaline oozing from every human orifice. These days, you might just make out the lifeless whir of 200 high-speed servers over the ticking clock. Because those 500 people have been whittled down to three. The other 497 have been usurped by complex algorithms.

These were not working stiffs: cleaners, receptionists or other service-industry hirelings already humbled by computers. They were university graduates with hard-fought degrees in subjects like business, finance or economics. Trouble was, for all their brainpower, passion and pedigree, algorithms just did the job better. They aren’t the only victims. The computers, now, have caught the scent of blood.

“A lot of people assume automation is only going to affect blue-collar people, and that so long as you go to university you will be immune to that,” says Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. “But that’s not true, there will be a much broader impact.”

This raises the question: as we move toward the brave new automated world, is a university degree in, say, economics, philosophy, English or anything else that isn’t to do with fixing cobots (collaborative robots) or writing algorithms worth the PDF file it was exported on? Or is it, practically speaking, useless? And if so, what are universities doing about it?

“Most universities are simply not doing enough to prepare students for the automated workforce,” says Nancy W Gleason, PhD, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Singapore’s Yale-NUS College, and the author ofHigher Education: Preparation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. “We need to teach students to be cognitively flexible, to have the skills and confidence to try different jobs throughout their lives. In the gig economy, you’re not going to have seven employers, you’re going to have seven careers. People might say, ‘Oh my degree in history didn’t do me any good.’ Well, guess what, neither will a degree in radiology, dentistry or law.”

This is not a joke. Last year, a report by McKinsey Global Institute suggested that up to 800 million careers (or 30 percent of the global job force) – from doctors to accountants, lawyers to journalists – will be lost to computers by 2030, while every single worker on earth will need to adapt “as their occupations evolve alongside increasingly capable machines”. Others suggest this number may be as high as 50 percent. “Machines are taking on cognitive capability, beginning to compete with our ability to reason, to make decisions and, most importantly, to learn,” adds Ford. “At least over the next couple of decades, AI and robotics are going to eliminate huge amounts of jobs. Beyond that, it gets more unpredictable; we really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

To find out more, I contacted 25 of the world’s leading universities to ask what, if anything, they are doing to prepare students for the choppy waters of fluid work. Of America’s eight Ivy League schools, only Dartmouth College had something to say; the rest either did not reply, were too busy or couldn’t find the proper person for me to speak to. And of the eight UK universities I approached, the London School of Economics and University of Sheffield did not reply, while Leeds and Birmingham both couldn’t find anyone suitable to comment. A press officer for the University of Cambridge said she wasn’t “aware of anything Cambridge-specific”.

This story was originally published in Vice. To Continue reading, click here.