Machines can complement, not merely replace, humans

The learning imperative is for skills that recognise the opportunities and limitations of machines. Steve Jobs said: “The computer is a bicycle for the mind”. Similarly, machines can become ‘prosthetics’ to extend human capabilities at all ages.

When chess world champion Gary Kasparov was beaten by IBM’s Big Blue in 1997, he predicted a ‘centaur’ future of humans and machines working together. This compares favourably to the alternative, and more common narrative today, of a zero-sum, jobs-destroying future with humans and machines struggling for supremacy. 

This intersection draws on the longevity trends around prosthetics and today’s changing workforce that requires technology to complement and extend human capabilities. It also recognises the pervasive digital transformation of learning and new immersive and experiential modes.

We see three opportunity areas:

  • Digital literacy - ensuring people of all ages interact successfully with technology. 
  • Hybrid learning - improving learning effectiveness and efficiency.
  • Augmentation - learning to effectively combine humans and machines.

Digital literacy - ensuring people of all ages interact successfully with technology

The challenge of digital literacy is most acute in the older generation. In the UK in 2018, the vast majority (79 percent) of those who didn’t use the internet were over 65. Similarly, fewer older people access the internet on a mobile device: only 39 percent of those over 65 accessed the internet on the go, compared with 69 percent for those aged 55 to 64, and above 85 percent for those 19 to 55. 

Learning is increasingly happening online. Just 17% of adult learners were ‘confident in their ability to use digital tools to pursue learning’, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study. 

Addressing these literacy challenges is generally best done (by definition, perhaps) offline, in person. One of the most effective and efficient models for improving digital literacy for the older generation is Senior Planet  in New York, a ‘tech-themed community centre that preps seniors to hack their way through a world conspiring to keep them side-lined. ’ Having taught over ten thousand older adults over the past decade, Senior Planet has developed a unique and successful formula: a design-centric community space in Chelsea, NYC (sponsored by large technology companies); an engaging curriculum focused on practical applications and the latest technology; and a vibrant intergenerational staff, including many millennials. It’s now being repeated in locations across the USA.

  • How might we develop emerging technologies (such as smart speakers) to lower the barriers for digital literacy?
  • How might we redesign digital curricula to ensure it is accessible to all ages and literacy levels?
  • How might we reward progress in digital literacy and collaborative learning environments?

Hybrid learning - improving learning effectiveness and efficiency

Technology-enabled learning is delivering new formats and new ways to learn, but also enabling personalised and immersive experiences that improve empathy and retention.     

VR start-up Embodied Labs  makes it easier for care professionals to learn how to deal effectively with dementia patients through immersion in a first-person experience of someone suffering with the disease. They are currently developing new content libraries covering issues such as macular degeneration, hearing loss, and end-of-life care.

  • How might new technology and virtual/immersive reality help deliver new learning skills?
  • How can machines be harnessed to bring about the humanity of situations and make people more empathetic?
  • How do we measure success and share best practices when it comes to hybrid learning? 

Augmentation: learning to effectively use humans and machines

The debate about AI replacing jobs has become more nuanced in recent years, with the focus shifting from replacing jobs to replacing tasks. As Irving Wladawsky-Berger from the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy notes that just because parts of a job disappear, it doesn’t mean the whole job will. “To the contrary, automating parts of a job will often increase the productivity and quality of workers by complementing their skills with machines and computers”.

Automation can, it seems, have a positive human side. According to a recent Goldsmiths, University of London, report, ‘organisations using automation technology are 33% more human friendly, and have employees who are 31% more productive'.

And while automation can potentially improve the productivity and humanity of jobs, it can also offer new learning opportunities. In a 2019 Capita study, ‘learning new skills’ was cited as the most significant benefit (44% agreed) of shifting to a ‘human-to-hybrid’ workforce.

IBM Watson’s AI is being connected to New Zealand-based Soul Machines  to take machine engagement to the next level. The team is currently testing whether the lifelike, intelligent, reactive avatars can generate greater emotional engagement and effectiveness. Telefonica’s Alpha Learning  is aiming to use this to develop new learning models to make learning easier for all.

  • How might we evolve today’s dominant business models to take account of digital augmentation
  • How might we design augmentation with the experience of workers as a priority?
  • How might we value and teach creativity and imagination to complement the ‘hard-skills’ of machines?

Rather than positioning humans against machines, we should instead think in terms of the opportunities and possibilities that technology augmented learning provides to our futures.

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Many business leaders see the 'human to hybrid' transition as their most important strategic challenge in the next five years.


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