As a tech-philosopher, I’m often asked whether I think the educational institutions are doing enough to help the younger generations develop the right skills for living and working in the age of disruptive technologies. My answer to that is that we first need to define what we mean by skills, but also, what do we mean by living and working? You may think that the answer is obvious but please allow me to present you with a somewhat different way of framing the topic of this article.
First things first, let’s look at the origins of terms such as skill, work, technology and education.
What do we mean by skills?
As humans, we have three forms of capacities: physical, cognitive and emotional. When we are born these capacities are not fully developed, they are mere “potentials”. Skills are the level of proficiency that we develop in realising our potential physical, cognitive, and emotional capacities.
Other animals also have these capacities to some degree, but their “skills” are not developed as much as ours. Something happened during the course of evolution of life on earth that dramatically increased humans abilities to enhance their skills, which put us at the top of the food chain. I’m talking about the advent of technology.
Technology is the name we give to a set of tools that allow us to outsource and enhance our skills. The two keywords here are “outsource” and “enhance”. Hold on to those as we will come back to them. The point is that as advanced life forms we rely on our skills and technologies to maximise our mastery over the environment and have a better quality of life for longer. This brings me to the question of life itself.
What is life?
Fortunately, there is someone who has already done an amazing job of describing life, so I won’t have to try and tackle it all by myself. That person was physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, who described life in a book he wrote by that very title.
I will do my best to paraphrase and summarize Schrödinger’s take on life, in my own very simplified words – that is at the moment of The Big Bang, our universe was in a state of total order and homogeneity. As the universe expanded it became more disordered and differentiated, and new forms were developed in the shape of stars, planets, galaxies and other entities. Since then the universe has been going toward a state of maximum entropy and disorder – another name for a state of maximum entropy is death!
In that sense, the universe is like a human baby who is in a state of perfect order when they’re born. As the baby grows up they become more and more disordered, they develop new behaviours, go through physical changes, and eventually, they die and dissolve, which is the ultimate state of disorder.
Going back to the Big Bang, in the process of increasing its disorder some particles in our baby universe randomly got together and formed new entities with a new kind of internal consistency and order. As far as we know, life on our planet, and intelligent life in humans, are the most advanced forms of order which has to date been achieved in the observable universe. A unique property of life in general and intelligent life, in particular, is that it draws energy and resources from its environment in order to increase its internal order and preserve itself. Mind you, life achieves this state of order, by increasing disorder in its environment. The current climate change crisis is an example of that – but that’s the topic of a whole other discussion.
For now, let’s focus on the skills. Developing more advanced “skills” lead to better preservation of life and order for our species. The process of applying our skills to achieve desired outcomes is typically what we call “work”, in human society. But it turns out that this is something we don’t have to do all by ourselves!
How do we outsource and enhance our capacities?
Work requires energy, which is highly valuable and limited in most living beings. Early humans realised that they could “employ” other people, animals, or tools to do some of their work for them so that they could preserve their energy and achieve better and more results.
For example, we “employed” fire to cook food, and as a result we were able to absorb more nutrients which made our brains bigger. In other words, we outsourced part of our digestion to fire.
The earliest forms of technology enabled us to outsource and enhance our physical capacities. The 1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions were the pinnacles of mechanisation and enhancement of our physical abilities. The 3rd Industrial Revolution, also known as the digital revolution of the 1980s, was all about enhancing and outsourcing our cognitive skills. You no longer need to spend hours at arithmetic and memorise facts when you can use calculators and you look up any fact with a simple Google search.
What’s left for us to do?
With machines surpassing humans at physical and cognitive tasks, there is only one capacity left for us to fall back on. Our emotional skills are what gives us an edge in the age of technological disruptions – at least for the time being. Artificial Intelligence is already able to mimic human emotions on many levels, but for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that they will be able to experience human emotions and subjectivity. That’s where (Human) Skills come in.
What are (Human) Skills?
Human skills are Emotional Intelligence, Critical Thinking, Contextual Creativity, and Mindfulness. At the moment these are the only kinds of skills left for us, which have not been outsourced to machines, although attempts at doing so are already underway. We really need to hurry to learn these skills and become proficient in them.
Where do educational systems come into play?
The truth is that throughout millennia the educational systems have not prepared us for these skills. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and why that might be the case. I have come to the conclusion that expecting educational systems to solve the problem of developing human skills in our young may be a futile exercise. The educational systems were never invented to teach us human skills to begin with. They were founded on Aristotelian logic and were always concerned with cognitive skills.
My personal opinion as a tech-philosopher and educator is that we as individuals have to take matters into our own hands. There is no point in wasting our time trying to change institutions that go back hundreds and thousands of years. If they catch up, that’s great. But given the speed of technological advancements, we simply don’t have the luxury of time to sit around and wait for them. I taught myself (human) skills, I didn’t learn them from my 21 years in education. The capacity to learn these skills is inherent in all of us – we just have to want to learn them. Once we do, we will be able to create new ways of thinking about work, life, fulfilment, and what it means to be human living alongside intelligent machines.
Somi Arian is a film director, tech philosopher, Founder of Smart Cookie Media and Co-Founder of Career Drive. Watch her award-winning documentary “The Millennial Disruption”.