A teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.
– Arthur C Clarke
Jobs are changing fast. Skills required for employability and career growth are changing faster. The hope is that this will produce many more interesting & fun jobs, and will divert humans towards a fulfilling work environment. The fear is, it will increase the unemployment rate manyfold. For better or for worse the change is imminent. I am optimistic and believe the change is going to be for better. To achieve a sanguine future, professionals, and humanity as a whole, need to constantly learn and upgrade their skills. In this article, I will discuss some helpful strategies for learning new skills for all professionals in general and data professionals in particular. I will also discuss the reasons for this fast change in work environment.
How did we come to a place where job requirements are so dynamic? I think it all started many years ago when:
A Genius Married a Computer
Claude Shannon is a pioneer of artificial intelligence, the information age, and data security. In the early 1940s, he was a young and brilliant engineer working at AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey. He married a computer while he was working on his seminal work on information theory and cryptography which would eventually contribute to the rise of the computer age. Later he had 3 children, two boys, and a girl, with his computer wife. There is absolutely nothing unusual or strange about Claude Shannon’s wife Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Moore. Mary was a young woman working as a computer in the same unit of Bell Labs as Claude. In those days, a computer was a job designation mostly occupied by women since the men were fighting the World War in Europe. Mary and other computers used to engage in the laborious numeric calculations using mechanical devices.
Shannon’s work would eventually lead to the replacement of ‘human computers’ like his wife by ‘machine computers’ – the devices we know as computers today. Shannon’s work would also have a similar impact on many other jobs across different industries. Most of us will agree that the introduction of computers didn’t cut down on the number of jobs but made them more efficient. Additionally, they also introduced a whole new layer of jobs that did not exist before the computer revolution. Let’s try to understand this through the …
A couple of weeks ago during an Uber pool ride in Mumbai, I met this driver who had quit his marketing job with an apparel chain to become an Uber driver. According to him driving with Uber is much less stressful, more flexible, and earns him about the same salary. The reason Uber drivers make a good income is because Uber optimizes their rides i.e. more rides at a less expense i.e. time and fuel. This optimization is of course powered by algorithms and the information age pioneered by the work of Claude Shanon.
There are roughly 70 thousand drivers working with Uber and its competitors in Mumbai. Ten years ago I can’t imagine driving a cab in Mumbai being less stressful and paying more than a marketing job. More importantly, car pooling, despite all its benefits, was never a viable option before the launch of these mobile apps. It’s a pleasure to see complete strangers sharing rides and putting less strain on the planet.
Despite all these advantages we know things are not going to be the same. That is the whole idea of technological advancements. Google and Tesla are already investing a lot of effort to make self-driving cars. We keep hearing about crashes and test failure of self-driving cars and feel we are still many years away from getting rid of ‘human drivers’. However, scientifically speaking, there is no better way to learn and perfect a machine but failures. Each of these crashes is generating a tremendous amount of data to rapidly improve self-driving cars.
Self-driving cars will further optimize the Uber rides and significantly reduce fuel consumption. However, it will also make 70 thousand drivers in Mumbai jobless. Not just the drivers but many other jobs in other sectors are also similarly in jeopardy because of technological advances and artificial intelligence. Many mundane operations will be done efficiently by artificial intelligence. The fear, as discussed earlier, is that this will leave a lot of people jobless. One of the crucial ways for us to not let this scenario come true is to start preparing for a better future by…
Learning and Improving
Sal Khan of Khan Academy, in his Ted talk, divided the skill sets required for a career into 3 broad categories: people doing human labor, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs. He mentioned that human society is moving from the industrial age to the information age. In this transition, he is essentially capturing the situation of Uber drivers in presence of self-driving cars through the following schematic.
As we are moving from the Industrial age to the information age, the number of jobs in the human labor class will start to shrink since automation and machines can perform these jobs with higher efficiency. This doesn’t mean that we can’t create more jobs in the creative and entrepreneurial class. The idea is to migrate the labor force from the bottom of the pyramid towards the top. However, the skills required for the entrepreneurial jobs are completely different than those for the human labor jobs. In this Ted talk, Sal Khan will highlight the aspect of mastering a skill for entrepreneurial ventures vs. preparing for test scores for bureaucratic and laborious tasks.
It is interesting that data science also has the same hierarchy of jobs as the industrial age. Most of the data professionals, at present, are engaged in laborious, and information processing work. A small portion of data professionals is engaged in creative and entrepreneurial roles. The reason for this: data management activities such as storage, preparation, cleaning etc. are highly effort intensive. However, with increasing automation soon we will have a self-driving-cars kind of moment in data science. This is where data professionals need to constantly learn and move up the skills hierarchy.
When the student is ready the teacher will appear.
– Budhist Proverb
The following Ted talks by Sugata Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson have some important lessons for everyone to feel part of the creative and entrepreneurial class. These talks are focused towards improving the education system. But, I believe these ideas could be highly useful towards education for adults and professionals.
Sign Off Note
As for the genius and his computer wife, they stayed happily married till the end of their lives.
Please share your views on learning and ways for the human workforce to move from ‘human labor class’ to ‘entrepreneurial class’.