Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do” to quote Philip Larkin, the Hermit of Hull. Well, I almost ‘fucked up’ my youngest daughter's chances of employment. She was in her late teens. Going through one of her periodic rebellious phases that mark those troublesome years. Locked in her room, head in a computer, I grew frustrated as it appeared she was neglecting her studies.
Frustrated at her surly attitude, in a fit of anger, I cut the cable for her internet connection. Resolute and steadfast, I’d made my point. Meanwhile, unknown to me in an instant she’d connected to the wifi in an adjacent apartment. On she continued with her internet work. In the end this secured her a place at university and in the modern world of work. Again, unbeknown to me she’d created several websites. Her internet presence earned her credits. She now does a job that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
All this came rushing back to me. The headline was “70% of Australians are studying for jobs that won’t exist in a decade”. It's already happening. The industrial revolution was the last big flip in work. Then we moved from agrarian based jobs to city based factory work with all its spin-offs. With it, the rustic life that dominated most societies was gone forever. Yet, this is nothing new as we have always evolved work. Except that the pace of that change is now much quicker. Plus, we don’t appear to be getting ready for it.
The research suggests that up to 50% of the jobs that currently exist will be lost to automation within 10 years. It’s even possible to predict which jobs will be hardest hit. Accounting clerks and bookkeepers will disappear. Likewise checkout operators, general administration staff and wood machinists. Most of these positions will be filled by automated processes based on algorithms. Meanwhile, factory work will decline further as more sophisticated robots appear.
Even the medical profession will see increased automation. Screening of symptoms is already underway. The next step will be precise diagnoses, then the assignment of treatment. Don’t forget that doctors interpret your symptoms by a process of elimination. Then determine likely ailments. An algorithm can do this well and much quicker. Plus, it has the advantage of being available 24/7, it doesn't get tired and should be cheaper. Doctors will still be needed, but the role will be even more specialised.
Today's kids need digital skills. Australia reckons that 50% of college level students will need advanced skills. This means they can configure and build systems. This should be a wake-up call for Hong Kong, where the education system is stuck in the past with rote learning. Imagination, innovation and flexibility are the skills future workers need. Alarm bells should now be ringing across the Hong Kong education system. Why? Because it's a system that discourages innovation. Kids either comply or be considered disruptive trouble makers. In short, Hong Kong’s education system is setting us up for failure.
No profession is going to be safe from the power of algorithms. Most processes can be automated, even thinking and judgment. The challenge is to create a world that keeps humans engaged, doing something useful. We survived the switch from hunter-gatherer, we survived the industrial revolution. We will survive this change if we move beyond our old thinking and don’t cut the internet cable!
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.