Daniel Susskind: A World Without Work

[SUSSKIND, D. (2020). A world without work: technology, automation, and how we should respond.]

I first came across Daniel Susskind when he gave a keynote speech in November 2020 at EdTech.  He introduced ‘A World Without Work’ – the research for which he used in his presentation. I could have had the eBook moments after he had finished speaking but these days prefer the book – preferably in hardback, so I had to wait ‘till the next day. It was the next day – ordered around lunchtime the book was with me at 10.00am the following morning. There’s work in logistics then, work in the warehouses and vans the ply out motorways and byways. And in big tech, its coding and engineering. 

He is against the ‘one size-fits-all’ teaching in favour of teaching tailored for one-to-one and for this he calls for ‘adaptive learning systems’. The aim, I have to wonder, is to recreate the Oxbridge tutorial, where two, at most three students sit with a tutor and over an hour or two discuss in depth a topic they have researched that week and written up as an essay, which may or may not be read out. He asks us to take a look at Benjamin Bloom, ‘The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective One to One Tutoring.’ Educational Researcher 13:6 discussed in Susskind and Susskind The Future of Professions (2015) p.56

Susskind argues that education is the answer to the problem faced by education. 

“If we can adapt what, how and when we teach, then education is our best current bulwark against technological unemployment.’ (p.161)  

Yet he writes this with a caveat, pointing out that the world’s greatest entrepreneurs dropped out of college. (I feel like pointing out that Richard Branson dropped out of school. That the reason for a person not wanting to be in school (UK High School) or university (US School) is because they are the ‘outlier’ – whether the high achiever – think Mark Zuckerberg, or the low or non-achiever. 

“Work has a future, whatever it is – education will help” Jason Furman, Chair of the President Obama’s Council of  Economic Advisers put in a Tweet.

He is right though. Education will help. We used to call it ‘going to night school’, then  ‘adult-learning, followed by ‘life-long learning’. Perhaps we ought to call it for what it is – education – even ‘getting and education’ whether taken during 12 or so formal learning years at school, followed by college or university and beyond. Though beyond these days means a return to ‘school’ (whichever version, UK or USA you want to think about). 

We are asked to look at Chris Hughes, ‘Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn’. (London, Bloomsbury, 2018) I will. I am in my undergraduate space once more when in the 1980s sitting in the Bodleian I got to call up one book after another as I disappeared down indulgent rabbit holes that swept my about in all manner of directions. 

Susskind accepts that AI isn’t right for everything – machines ‘are bad at empathy’.  In these Covid Days it is the human contact that students craze – at least the younger ones and older teens and tweens. On the World at One on BBC Radio 4 on the 5 January interviews with students, teachers and leaders from education revealed the state of education in a pandemic – when they are allowed back school attendance at primary is far better than usual, when they are in lockdown first year undergraduates locked away in halls of residents are miserable through lack of contact with tutors who in some institutions are failing to provide support and feedback. And then we have the older teens who want to rebel – some at least who use the excuse to ‘go off the radar’ or simply cannot get on the ‘radar’ for lack of hardware or reliable Internet connection. 

Like retail, education will be transformed by big data.

But big data, Susskind points out, ‘requires big business’ due to the huge sums of money ‘required to handle the huge amounts of data needed to make valid decisions’, and ‘the need to use world-leading software and having to employ extraordinarily powerful hardware’. (p.199)  

Susskind wonders if the time has come from a Universal Basic Income, something Thomas Paine  proposed in his ‘Agrarian Justice’ in 1796. This in turn opens up all kinds of other ideas and opportunities to re-invent our world, how we work, play and provide enough of everything to everyone. He doesn’t wade into the mud of current politics though.  

His knowledge of e-learning is confined to the obvious, the likes of Harvard University Online and the Khan Academy. But it is worth looking at the number, that the likes of the Khan Academy has 100,000 practice problems, 5,500 instructional videos and a global following that produces 10 million unique visitors a month. I know that the leading Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Coursera, ‘Learning How To Learn’ has or has had over 2.3 million students and that a cohort of such modules can be in the tens, even the hundreds of thousands. There’s some way to go regarding how these are monetized, accredited and completion rates, but increasingly such platforms as Coursera and FutureLearn are showing that e-learning can replace the classroom. 

Susskind asks us to look at Computational Creativity: The Final Frontier? Proceedings of the 20th European Conference on A.I. (2012) 21-6.

Playing devil’s advocate Susskind states that ‘Every aspect of learning … could be simulated by a machine.’ (p.47) The word ‘simulate’ is key, because at this stage doing what looks like learning does not mean that it produces a change in knowledge and therefore behaviour – which is the ultimate test – that after learning you can do a thing you could not do before, or express a different belief or point of view. 

Susskind offers some crumbs, albeit important ones, that will not be touched by AI – caring, leisure, sport. I question the first. I can understand leisure and sport, by default these are human activities, undertaken by the individual, however do we not already see how smart devices such as a smart speaker take an assistive if not a caring role? Blind for five years my father in law swears by his Alexa which tells him the time, the weather, reads the Economist, provides the news, tells him when he should take a pill or exercise and with another simple instruction will call a family member via their own smart speaker whether they are 135 miles away or in the kitchen. 

Susskind provides the background to Artificial Intelligence. As a concept it was first expressed on 31st of August 1955 in a proposal to the Dartmouth Summer Research Project.

Susskind asks, ‘Is there more to life than employability?’ I’d say no for many, when it comes down to earning a living – what the vast majority of the world’s population are surely obliged to do? He talks of virtues such as ‘honesty’ and ‘kindness’ and civic virtues, such as ‘curiosity, creativity, diligence and perseverance’. (p.227) The problem is that alone these are not going to lead to a person earning their way in life. He then goes on to ask, ‘who desires employment?’ Well, the ‘individual’ does (unless they’ve inherited wealth) and ‘employers’, even in logistics Amazon employs people and as we’ve seen in hospitals, no matter how much tech is present, they are nonetheless busy places. ‘Society’ needs employment too, to create happy people and to counter apathy. I am reminded of Sim City and – that civic pride in building and leading a culture (albeit it a gamified and sometimes violent one). 

Susskind says we need employment to give people a sense of ‘direction in life’, that where populations have no employment there is ‘increasing ill will’ towards others, that employment provides ‘structure and purpose’.

Susskind quotes Barack Obama who said that “in coming decades a high school diploma is not going to be enough. Folks need a college degree. They need workforce training’. University of Texas, 9 August 2020 (p.155) I understood that the mantra was that a degree was not enough, that an MA or MBA was required these days – it is all a matter of perspective. Either way the ‘workforce training’ at least ‘exposure’ – if not sustained experience is required. The issue here, though, in a supposed world of diminishing employment opportunities where do ‘they’ get such ‘workforce training’? 

Hedging his bets, as academics do systemically and economists do by default, Susskind offers a caveat from Gary Becker, who wrote in The Economist 3 August 2017 that ‘we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run’.  We are all, in other words, either consumers of and believers in  journalism, or the authors of these stories. The shock of the new, whether imminent or far off, is more interesting than the slow slither of change that goes at snail’s pace. 

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