Ideasroom

Robots won’t replace all that makes us human

As the human touch fast disappears from numerous more employment sectors, we must recognise the changing world of work is already upon us, writes the University of Auckland's Robert Greenberg

Some experts in New Zealand predict that 40 per cent of current jobs will disappear in the next 10 years. 

Now, we can’t know this for certain – technology has yet to come up with a reliable tool for future gazing. However, we do know technology is taking us from automated travel announcements in airports around the world, to modular houses designed and built under automation, to accountancy and legal advice dispensed by computer, to delicate surgeries carried out by nerve-free, emotionless, hand-steady robots. 

As the human touch fast disappears from numerous more employment sectors, we must recognise the changing world of work is already upon us and think about where that takes us in terms of study and career choices.

Of course, while certain industry and sector-specific roles are definitely under threat through automation, jobs won’t disappear entirely. Even in sectors where automation is redefining the working environment, jobs are likely to remain for those people who can control the processes, who can think critically, analyse, problem solve and market the new way. There will be jobs for people who can see the bigger picture and adapt their knowledge to manoeuvre through a changing world, and for people who understand other cultures and have global awareness. 

People, in fact, who have studied the arts.

We know technology will continue to advance and force change upon our working world, but we will always need those human skills that arts study develops so well. The robots may well be on their way, but let’s remember that all that makes us human cannot be automated.

Arts-related skills are being recognised in employment discourse around the world. It is a welcome and much-needed turnaround from recent perceptions that an arts education is irrelevant. Nothing could ever have been further from the truth! Arts faculties all over the world are preparing a workforce with skills and knowledge to slot into so many sectors and industries. 

For example, we can’t know for sure what the future of work will look like, but an arts graduate who has studied historical transformations like the industrial revolution, the technological revolution we are going through now or the dot.com boom of the 90s, can use that knowledge to analyse where the world may be heading.  Their knowledge of the past will help them identify industry disrupters of the future, question what they see, look at the effect they have and use this thinking to predict what the world of work might look like decades ahead. 

Historical knowledge is hugely relevant in the wider picture too. We are seeing evidence that many young people don’t know about recent events like 9/11, or what happened in the Vietnam war. These world-changing major events that were part of upbringing for older generations are in danger of being forgotten, But  history, as we know, repeats itself so we need people who have studied history, understand the past and can use that knowledge to analyse current situations, problem-solve and guide.

Then there is communication. This is a skill fundamental to most arts subjects and always relevant to the working world. We will always need effective communicators who can write and speak to persuade, advocate, articulate ideas, vision, and lead. And in our current world of information overload, precise and accurate messaging has never been more crucial, from day-to-day communication through to academic research. 

For example, there are people in arts disciplines who are looking at algorithms and analysing language patterns in texts to determine the veracity of news items and challenge the epidemic of fake news. This will be an important 21st century skill because so many people are fooled by fake news or manipulated in a new kind of warfare where trolls in Country X can impact the Brexit vote or an election in the US. We need people who can combat these threats – and they won’t be engineering or IT graduates. They will be people who can analyse and question, who know the world and how to create research that allows us to understand that something is fake.

If I had to summarise an arts graduate in a handful of words, I would say they have learned how to think, which is much more important than what to think. They have learned to read people through literature, or politics, history or language classes. They have developed cultural intelligence and learned to see the bigger picture – not just the individual trees but the forest and the planet, and through a global lens – which is essential in any type of workplace and in any company. And crucially for the times we are living, they are future-proofed from being locked into professions that might be going away.

Interestingly, commentary in support of arts graduates from business and industry leaders has coincided with a recent and perceptible change of attitudes articulated by government. Until quite recently, the talk was all about STEM subjects with very little credit – or funding – given to the arts, but with the New Zealand Government’s prioritisation of wellbeing and social issues, the arts are again on the ascendancy.

We know technology will continue to advance and force change upon our working world, but we will always need those human skills that arts study develops so well. The robots may well be on their way, but let’s remember that all that makes us human cannot be automated.

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