Technology and human skills: an interesting conversation at the Hay Festival Segovia
On Saturday morning, I took part in a very interesting session at the Hay Festival Segovia, with Marta García Aller, journalist, teacher and author of the inspiring “El fin del mundo tal y como lo conocemos” (“The end of the world as we know it”) and Scott Hartley, formerly of Google, venture capitalist, lecturer at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of another interesting book, “The fuzzy and the techie”.
Marta opened up with a couple of stories from yesterday’s Spanidh newspapers: with the issue of sex with robots and its possible regulation (a topic I’ve discussed on a number of occasions and which I usually resort to when my classes start to flag), as well as creating an algorithm capable of predicting soccer injuries or even perhaps how much footballers should be paid. But we soon focused on the central theme of the session: the importance of human skills and non-technological knowledge in a future seemingly set to be dominated by machines.
My opinion is that the important thing is not technology in itself, but technology adoption processes. With each day, I have fewer doubts about technology’s ability to offer solutions to practically all the problems we face today: we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by half and eliminate road deaths, for example, but we don’t do it just because adoption processes are stopped either by inertia or powerful interests.
In short, technology is doing fine, the problem is the lack of people in other fields, notably the humanities, working to help us adopt the work of scientists and developers that could change our lives and our world.
History should have taught us by now that machine learning and the AI revolution will not make us redundant, but instead empower us and provide us with more vocational opportunities. It is only by analyzing the question from a philosophical or ethical point of view that we can understand there are certain types of work humans should not do, and that the problem isn’t that some people make their living doing dull, dehumanizing, dangerous, dirty or demeaning work; the problem is the cost this represents for society, and therefore, what to offer these people when their jobs are done by machines.
At the core of this debate is education (as an academic I might be forgiven for arguing this line: when you have a hammer, all problems are a nail ;-). We have decided not to educate our children about technology and have no idea what they are doing with it and simply hoping for the best.
In fact it’s worse than that: we are going backwards: France’s decision to ban smartphones in schools marks a new low in stupidity, effectively turning schools into bulwarks against technology, blocking the development of digital skills and, above all, reducing our ability to expose students to a wider range of information sources, which are vital for the development of the kind of critical and fundamental thinking that allows young people to spot fake news when they see them. President Emmanuel Macron’s is now being copied by idiotic politicians all over the world, among them in Spain.
Let’s be clear about this: smartphones only “distract” children if we refuse to integrate them completely into the educational process, to use them as a tool to access information instead of textbooks, which are still considered the font of all human knowledge, and encourage the development of critical thinking by drastically changing how we teach: that, and not banning smartphones, is what we should be considering doing, because the function of education, to a large extent, is to teach children to function in the world, and the current world is full of smartphones and related technologies. In today’s world, knowing the planet’s rivers, capitals or a list of presidents by heart doesn’t make you smart; knowing how to use a smartphone to find things out, does. Converting schools into Asterix-style villages beyond the reach of technology is a mistake that will have serious long-term consequences.
Scott raised an important question: the development of technology, whether algorithms or its design, involves innumerable decisions with ethical implications: smartphones allow us to write or send messages when driving; there is nothing to prevent a Facebook timeline from being misused by third parties. It would be very interesting to have a more humanistic point of view on these issues.
Lest we forget: the function of technology companies is to create technology, and there is no point in trying to anticipate the problems that might arise as a result, aside from anything because excessive precautions will likely end up preventing or hindering technological development.
(En español, aquí)