Until I read this post below by Alison McDowell, I had not considered the international corporate benefit of operating an army of industrial robots from afar. But why shouldn't globalized business take advantage of this brave new world: producers like China and India can keep factories operating where the air is too toxic or too hot for humans to breathe; Silicon Valley can stay busy generating the hardware and software for production; the education industry can train up an overabundance of gritty, grateful, and self-controlled robot operators who never have to leave their screens to clock in and clock out from factories afar.
After all, if we can have the Air Force carry out a war in Middle East deserts from air conditioned bunkers in Colorado, why shouldn't international capitalism take advantage of these same tech tools?
This is the second of ten questions presented as a Trans-Atlantic dialogue between myself and UK blogger Privatising Schools. Read the introduction and first installment here. A condensed version pulling together content of several responses for UK audiences can be read on the Local Schools Network website.
Privatizing Schools: Question 2
Anthony Seldon, a former headteacher who is an influential voice in education debate in England, has published a book called The Fourth Education Revolution. He claims that robots – ‘adaptive’ learning systems or ‘AI personal tutors’ – will replace teachers within 10 years.
Echoing Selden, our current secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, recently called on the tech industry – ‘both the UK’s burgeoning tech sector and Silicon Valley giants like Apple and Microsoft’ – to ‘launch an education revolution’. To quote at slightly more length:
In some schools, state-of-the-art technology is bringing education to life by helping children take virtual trips through the Amazon and control robots, while also slashing the time their teachers are spending on burdensome administrative tasks.
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It seems Mr. Seldon’s book may be referencing the shift to what is being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a concept advanced by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In the spring of 2017, WEF opened a Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolutionin the Presidio in San Francisco, California. The focus of the Center is to develop policies around the future of work, automation, artificial intelligence, cross-border data flows, the Internet of Things, and technologies like drones and autonomous vehicles.
To make sense of what is happening in schools today we must place ourselves in the position of the global elite. They anticipate a future where stable careers that pay a living wage will become increasingly scarce as automation and virtual agents creep into service sector jobs like teaching, medical treatment, therapy, and elder care. They anticipate a future where human-robot cooperation is normalized in advanced manufacturing settings. For a sense of research underway see the publication list from the Tufts Human Robot Interaction Laboratory here. As digital economic systems take hold through widespread adoption of crypto-currencies and Blockchain smart contracts, global supply chains will continue to evolve. Corporate interests will be operating from a globalist perspective. The real world and virtual worlds will meld in ways that disrupt current conceptions of human capital and supply chain management.
A malleable workforce with the proper mindset will best serve the interests of the elite. That is why we are seeing growing emphasis on capturing data on students’ non-cognitive skills. People must be acclimated to the premise of “lifelong learning” in which they will be constantly reskilled to effectively interface with cutting-edge automated systems. Having a population of independent thinkers will not benefit those at the top of the economic pyramid. In fact, independent thinking of the type encouraged by self-selected reading over algorithmic online education modules could be perceived as a threat. There will always be a small group at the top who will have access to humane instruction, but the masses must be conditioned towards dutiful acceptance of their fate, placated with digital entertainment and monitored through deployment of ubiquitous surveillance being incorporated into “smart” city design.
Those in positions of authority have long-range plans with aligned communications strategies geared to incrementally move us towards acceptance of these “innovative” practices. If they move at a gradual, yet steady pace it is likely people won’t catch on and instead will accept this future as if there were no alternative. Adoption of virtual field trips as a mode of educational training is one example of how tele-presence is being normalized, despite serious health concerns over VR use in children. If the goal in fifteen years is to make it acceptable for poor people to carry out manufacturing activities via virtual reality simulators for affluent factory operators in distant, secured locations, they have to get people conditioned to operating in virtual worlds now. But it should seem like fun, not work. It should be presented as a special opportunity, not drudgery.
In closing, I will add that virtual reality systems enable the capture of vast amounts of biometric data. Most people do not realize when they put on a headset and hand pieces, they create as much data as they consume. In addition to eye tracking and body positions, systems can also capture heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, and emotional states. See more information here, here, and here. Many companies are also looking to position virtual and augmented reality simulators as impact investments, due to their capacity to change attitudes and opinions around social issues. This aligns with research I recently undertook around “solutions” journalism and impact markets in media. In any event, don’t listen to Mr. Seldon; beware VR empathy machines.