Teaching For a Future Where Humans are Obsolete

One of the hardest things about teaching young students is actually envisioning the ways the world will be different when they’re ready to join the workforce. What skills will they need in ten years, or twenty, or fifty? These days, it’s hard to know which industries and jobs to prepare your students for, and which will be disrupted by technology.

In the past I’ve tried to envision a future where human teachers and education technology can work together to improve education. Secretly, though, I fear that many administrators and startups will choose to save money on teacher salaries as soon as it’s technologically possible. However I’ve never considered how the inevitable march of technology threatens to severely limit students’ future career prospects, and may impact what we teach them now.

This video, Humans Need Not Apply, outlines the many industries where humans have already been replaced by machines, and shows how the technology already exists to replace roughly 45% of the global workforce. (!!!) It paints a bleak picture of the future of human work– one in which robots are doing our jobs better than we can for a fraction of the price. It also directly challenges the notion that jobs lost to machines are the worst ones, and that the jobs of the future will be new and unimaginable today.

What we’re seeing in 2014 is an economy where most traditional jobs are disappearing, new jobs are not being created, and the best jobs are all about automating other people’s jobs with technology. Jobs that we thought were sacrosanct and immune to obsolescence are increasingly vulnerable to being replaced– leading me to update the famous speech “First they Came…” speech by Pastor Niemoller of his experience in Nazi Germany:

When the robots came for the bank tellers
I remained silent; 
I was not a bank teller. 

When they replaced all the soldiers
I remained silent; 
I was not a soldier. 

When they came for the journalists
I did not speak out; 
I was not a journalist. 

When they came for the librarians
I didn’t speak up, 
because I wasn’t a librarian. 

When they came for me, 
there was no-one left 
to speak out.

We may need to plan for a future where our survival does not depend on our labor. Our whole economy is now predicated on that basic assumption, and it raises troubling questions about who will be able to survive in a future dominated by automated labor.

Every time I try to think out how this might look, I envision a socialistic utopia where the robots generate wealth which is equally shared across all of society. My fear is that those who control the Means of Production (i.e. those who own and control the robots) will increasingly concentrate wealth and power in higher and higher echelons of society, out of the reach of the vast majority of citizens.

How does this advancing reality affect the skills and knowledge that we promote to our students? Are the thinking and collaboration skills we value in modern education preparing them for the good jobs of today, or of tomorrow? What kinds of educational, political, and economic structures will we need in place when we are no longer the most intelligent beings in the workforce, and how can we teach students to participate in those? It’s an admittedly alarmist thought, but it’s definitely a thought experiment worth thinking out in the event that our jobs, our curricula, and our species become obsolete.


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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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