Shared from the 2/19/2017 The Age eEdition

in the age of the smart machine, what's a smart kid?


$20 Boss students from Frankston High School’s 2015 cohort with their recycled hardwood chopping boards.


As machines encroach ever further on to our turf, the job of predicting which traits will remain distinctively human and bankable gets harder.

Children and adults face new challenges in an automated world, writes Paul Biegler.

The research of James Flynn, Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago, suggests intelligence is indeed a flexible trait that can, like a muscle, be strengthened with exercise. ‘You cannot give career advice to a 15-year-old today who will have 17 jobs in five different industries. You have to have skills in career management . . . it’s kind of a build your own adventure.’

Jan Owen, Foundation for Young Australians

How are dogs and rabbits alike? This kind of question has been on IQ tests for years and the answer, it turns out, depends a good deal on which era you live in.

Back in the down-home, cottonspinning, 19th century you’d be right in thinking you use dogs to hunt rabbits.

Shift forward to the glassfronted skyscrapers of the 20th century Information Age and there was a new right answer; they are both mammals.

But as humans leapfrog into the 21st century of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robots and machine learning, is there an even newer answer? And if so, what is it?

It’s a fair bet Australian children will need to know if they are to reach the economic independence many of their parents take for granted.

The arrival of what MIT academics Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee call The Second Machine Age will throw up unique challenges for the workers of tomorrow.

In June the Productivity Commission warned we risk losing 40 per cent of jobs to automation over the next 10 to 15 years and it’s increasingly clear those jobs that do remain won’t follow the traditional time line.

‘‘The old model is that you’re born and you go to school and you go to university and you get a job and you retire after 35 years with a gold pen,’’ said Jan Owen, chief executive of the Foundation for Young Australians.

In November the FYA released its latest report, The New Work Mindset, which will make grim reading for any young jobseekers expecting the linear work trajectory that was the norm for their grandparents.

The report says today’s teenager can expect to hold 17 different jobs across five industries in their working life.

And in an analysis of 2.7 million job ads the report found that across seven job clusters the likelihood of surviving automation varies dramatically.

‘‘Carers’’ (e.g. GPs, social workers), ‘‘informers’’ (e.g. teachers, economists) and ‘‘technologists’’ (e.g. programmers, web developers) have the most bullish prospects while ‘‘artisans’’ (e.g. electrical engineering techs, mechanics) and ‘‘co-ordinators’’ (e.g. bookkeepers, receptionists) have the bleakest outlook in the face of automation.

And an earlier FYA report, released in April, suggests that as traditional occupations die out the ability to pivot between jobs will hinge on a critical set of skills.

‘‘Our New Basics report analysed 4.2 million job advertisements in Australia to look at what employers were asking for, particularly for young people with under five years’ experience. They were asking for a set of enterprise skills,’’ said Owen.

The FYA has found those enterprise skills, including problemsolving, creativity, digital skills, teamwork, communication skills and critical thinking are not only a common requirement across jobs clusters but translate to hard cash, garnering up to $9000 more in annual income.

‘‘Career advice is outdated,’’ said Owen, who is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Future Schools Conference in Melbourne.

‘‘You cannot give career advice to a 15-year-old today who will have 17 jobs in five different industries. You have to have skills in career management ...

‘‘It’s kind of a build your own adventure.’’

A crucial question for educators is what kind of intelligence we should be fostering in children to give that adventure a happy ending.

If you think intelligence is fixed for life the question itself might seem otiose, but the research of James Flynn, Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago, suggests intelligence is indeed a flexible trait that can, like a muscle, be strengthened with exercise.

And the kind of exercise it gets relates closely to the cognitive demands of the age.

‘‘In 1900 practically no one drove a car, in 1950 about everyone did and today they’re bringing in automatic guidance systems,’’ said Flynn.

‘‘Map reading abilities for driving a car were nil in 1900, at their peak in the 1950s and today they’re declining again because you don’t need them any more. It depends on the demands your society makes,’’ he said.

Flynn is famous for showing that IQ scores increased substantially across generations in the 20th century.

The so-called ‘‘Flynn Effect’’ results, he argues, from the spread of formal schooling giving people the ‘‘scientific spectacles’’ necessary to solve the kinds of problems asked on IQ tests, often involving logic or abstract reasoning.

The brainteaser now is what cognitive demands will be made by the new machine age.

The short answer is that children should think seriously about adding a pair of creative spectacles to their school uniform.

A 2015 report by British think tank Nesta concluded that creative roles, including architects, IT professionals and artists, are more future-proof to computerisation.

It makes sense that creativity is a bulwark against the march of robots into the workplace because it’s one of the few things the bots haven’t mastered. Yet.

And as Owen points out, in a perpetually disrupted workspace employers will be looking for people who can confront unforeseen hurdles with flexibility and innovation.

Her own organisation encourages entrepreneurship with $20 Boss, a program that gives school students $20 in start-up cash to create a business.

One of her favourites came from a group of students in Frankston.

‘‘They went around their community and literally picked up rubbish, particularly wood off-cuts, and started creating these beautiful pieces. Then they used the $20 to take it to a market,’’ said Owen, who bought breadboards from the students as Christmas presents.

Indeed, the demands of the socalled ‘‘creative economy’’ could lead to a wholesale rethink of what it means to be intelligent.

Scott Barry Kaufman is scientific director of the Imagination Institute, a Philadelphia-based organisation that in 2015 awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding to projects aimed at improving imagination.

Ultimately, the aim is to be able to measure imagination with an IQ test – that’s ‘‘IQ’’ for ‘‘Imagination Quotient’’.

‘‘Standard IQ tests do a good job at testing the ability to learn ‘what is’,’’ said Kaufman.

‘‘The Imagination Quotient will test for a set of imaginationrelated skills that take us to the realm of ‘what could be’. Those skills can involve the ability to construct narratives and to mentally simulate futures that don’t currently exist.’’

The projects, due for completion mid-year, include studies of how ‘‘imagination experts’’ such as artists and musicians produce their work and whether transcranial brain stimulation can boost creativity.

Kaufman, who will be a visiting scholar at Geelong Grammar in August, is also an adviser to The Future Project, a US non-profit that embeds school students in ‘‘dream teams’’ to complete passion-driven projects.

One project called ‘‘Got Beauty’’ recruited 240 students to combat poor body image by writing messages of self-love on mirrors across the school.

‘‘I think that imagination is tied up with hope,’’ said Kaufman.

‘‘If we can get kids in the mindset that, whenever they reach a roadblock, there are multiple responses to the problem, we will set them up for greater resilience and greater perseverance.’’

But the kind of intelligence we might want to imbue in the coming generation is complicated further by the fact that we’ve all got a supercomputer in our pockets.

‘‘Intelligence has always been in the tools,’’ said Daniel Araya, a researcher at Brookings Institution and editor of the forthcoming book Augmented intelligence: Smart systems and the future of work and learning.

‘‘Whether it’s communication and the use of language, or the ability to be a settled agricultural society that can manage food production, or a more knowledge-driven civilisation that leverages digital tools to provide answers to questions.

‘‘AI is a kind of tool we’ve never had before, a kind of god tool.’’

Augmented intelligence is the idea of a notional human-AI hybrid or ‘‘centaur’’ with an intelligence exceeding that of either alone, a model that sees AI as something to be embraced not feared. And as we see more centaurs wandering around, traditional IQ tests could start to look positively quaint.

‘‘I think a lot of these IQ-driven challenges will become moot,’’ Araya said.

‘‘You will have access to almost any answer to any question, so what would be the point?’’

The fact that machine-enabled humans can look up when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and calculate pi to infinite decimal places also looks like an argument against traditional ‘‘chalk and talk’’ pedagogy and another reason to be leveraging students’ creativity.

But Araya sees education as something of a laggard in the face of the creative economy, and is sympathetic to the views of US academic Richard Florida, who he interviewed for his doctorate.

‘‘Schools are an institution

built for the Fordist era. They are modelled on factories to churn out young workers for an industrial era,’’ said Araya, referencing the Model T production line. ‘‘But we’re not living in that era, we don’t need Fordist workers. The problem is we’re trying to retool the factory school because we think that is what a responsible adult should do to benefit the future economy.

‘‘The reality may be we need a different kind of incubator for human development that doesn’t look like a school.’’

Araya favours a journeyman model where students with given talents are mentored by successful professionals in that field.

His solution aims at the middle ground between old-school teaching that stifles innovation and an ultra liberal approach that could see lots of children navel gazing and large skills disparities across the system.

But Flynn points out that in the obsession to steer students to future economic success we risk ignoring a critical dimension of the function of intelligence.

‘‘There is still the task out there of being a human being,’’ said Flynn.

‘‘Intelligence is really just a set of mental skills. There is the skill of being able to take a car apart and there is the skill of reading the history of the Middle East and understanding it. Some skills get an automatic pecuniary reward and others just make you a more autonomous human being.

‘‘There are certain skills that are primarily beneficial to a person who wants to be a good citizen and a good judge of his government.’’

In an era dominated by the West’s response to the Middle East, Flynn’s comments suggest the syllabus could sacrifice some creativity for a compulsory history lesson.

And Araya points out another reason to be wary of creativity as a panacea.

‘‘Just because you are creative it doesn’t guarantee economic prosperity. Especially in the world of filmmaking and the arts it’s generally a winner-takes-all space,’’ he said.

It’s a similar story in the tech sphere where nine out of 10 startups go belly up – Araya sees the elite Silicon Valley knowledge worker as a cautionary stereotype, cashing in where others with even above average talent fail.

Even the premise that creativity is uniquely human is being challenged by projects such as Google’s Magenta that aims to harness machine learning to create art and music.

As machines encroach ever further on to our turf the job of predicting which traits will remain distinctively human and bankable gets harder.

Maybe it won’t be intelligence at all but rather autonomy, our ability to be self-directed in often surprising ways.

‘‘One of the smartest people I know is the head of a motorcycle gang in Auckland,’’ said Flynn. ‘‘He has a Weschler IQ of about 150. They all admire him and he’s the best street fighter on the block. If you said ‘wouldn’t you rather be a cost accountant?’ he’d think you were absolutely mad.

‘‘A smart person often rises in whatever environment they’re in. But that doesn’t mean they have the executive ability to sit down and say how much can I resist the environment I’m in and what could I become if I broke out.’’

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