VT Digger: William Mathis: Dangers in the Brave New World

Just as we were thinking that “The Matrix” and “The Terminator” were science fiction, the evening news shows us a different reality. We are being tracked by our own personal devices. Cameras with facial recognition systems increasingly pervade corridors and are carried by drones. Raising the specter of all seeing snoops, these are well within the grasp of today’s technology. These are but faint harbingers of more pervasive intrusions which will affect everyone in a multitude of ways. Our jobs, what we buy, our hobbies, what will be taught in schools, and our personal lives will be – despite weak assurances – open to the public. This will change the very nature of society.

But that’s not all. Open the federal and state departments of labor’s websites and go to the workforce projections. A quick look shows the bulk of job vacancies are low-paying. This is troubling enough but routine jobs are being automated and will basically be gone by the end of the 2020s. That’s about 40 percent of today’s jobs says a Yale-Oxford research team. By 2065, artificial intelligence will match, then exceed, human capabilities reports MIT Technology Review. Different sources estimate different doomsdays but it all happens in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. We already see self-driving cars and trucks, delivery by drone, the desertification of shopping malls, and banking by teller-less ATM. As these trends continue, a huge segment of the newly trained STEM population will be unemployed or underemployed.

An Obama White House working group report says the jobs that will disappear first are those that are lower paid, lower-skilled and require less education. This raises the specter of even greater gaps between the affluent and the increasingly unemployed. Machines will be able to repair themselves and enhance their own capabilities without human intervention (or control). Further advances in STEM technologies and manufacturing will be accomplished much more efficiently with artificial intelligence. Car problems are already diagnosed and even repaired by plugging a computer into one of the many computers in the car. Speaking to the dangers of this brave new world, Bill Gates said in the Washington Post, “I don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” Tesla’s Elon Musk says it is the greatest risk for civilization, “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.” 

We already see the middle class being hollowed out. Paradoxically, technology reduces the need for highly skilled workers. Among other reasons, this is why we see a fraction of the top 1 percent accumulating disproportionate wealth as the middle class slides into poverty. As demonstrated by the proposed federal tax reforms, the privileged have shown little concern for the less fortunate. Much has been made of achievement gaps, but it is the increasing wealth gap that poses the greater risk.

Noting that technological change has always resulted in increased economic growth, President Obama’s artificial intelligence task force recommended embracing new cyber capabilities for their obvious benefits. The group’s recommendations, unfortunately, don’t match the scope of the problem; the mandatory recitation of STEM sound-bites is provided along with a laundry list of current safety net programs. These initiatives lack the scope and scale needed to deal with massive social, occupational and economic restructuring.

For our schools and our grandchildren, subject matter knowledge is essential but not enough. The tasks before us require a rebalancing of educational purposes. Educational reformers vacuously talk about high standards, the common core, standardized tests and accountability systems but ignore the most important requirement – which is how we use these skills. It is to build a fairer and more democratic society.

It is hard to conceive of a stable society when huge proportions of the people will essentially be jobless while total wealth continues to increase. Will we invent new ways of conceiving of the common wealth and how it will be allocated? “No government is legitimate,” said Ron Dworkin, “that does not show equal concern for the fate of all those citizens over whom it claims dominion and from whom it claims allegiance.”

A society can exist only as long as it holds cooperative and mutually supporting values. As our nation was brought into a united set of states by the molding of a common ethos, we must restore the bonds of community. In a time of atomistic isolation, we must redefine our culture, and we must reform our government as well as our schools for the benefit, if not for the very lives, of our children and grandchildren.

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William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist and a Vermont Superintendent of the Year....