It has been clear for many years now that AI is changing our entire world. We’ve been told for over a decade now that we must adapt to a rapidly shifting world of automation, outsourcing, and AI-driven solutions, but it seems that the current pandemic has highlighted the need both for artificial intelligence solutions and for humans to adapt rapidly to living with them. There is plenty of talk about how we can leverage AI to fight COVID-19 itself, but the more visible applications of AI are the ones that have helped us make the lifestyle changes necessary to reduce the rate of spread: rapidly scaled eCommerce that allows us to shop for almost everything from the safety of home, customized learning profiles for students who have to learn from afar, FluSense and other pandemic outbreak predictors, and smart social media applications that allow us to socialize without being physically present.
Experts are predicting that industries like retail will never go back to the way they operated pre-pandemic—the current disruption will be a permanent one, not a temporary change. In this sense, the disruption of COVID-19 is a push into a future that has long been predicted, where our lives are driven in unprecedented ways by AI and our world is in a constant state of flux. Way back in 2016 we were being told that almost 70% of children beginning school that year would end up working in careers that don’t exist yet. That now seems more plausible than ever.
So what should we be learning that will actually serve us well ten, twenty, or even thirty years in the future? What can we learn when the lessons of a traditional education could be irrelevant in a matter of months?
Learn to Avoid Being “Hacked”
No, humans can’t be hacked in the same sense that computer systems can. But as AI becomes better at predicting and manipulating human desires and behaviors, we can find our attention hijacked more expertly than ever before. The simplest example of this phenomenon is the online “attention economy,” which monetizes the amount of time you spend paying attention to a particular mobile application, video, or website. Social media in particular is carefully engineered to “hack” your attention and manipulate you into spending more time on specific apps and services. For example, platforms like Twitter and Instagram have long been known to build in delays to their refresh actions, creating a mechanism of “intermittent variable rewards”—the same mechanism that makes slot machines so addictive to humans.
A more complex example is in the intersection of biometric data, AI solutions, and pure computer power. In one interview author Yuval Noah describes how now that huge corporations have simultaneous access to large-scale computing power, advanced algorithms, and biometric data (like that generated by a smartwatch, for instance), they can use this combination of data and resources to sell us almost anything, simply by sending us the right message in the right emotional tone at the right time.
How can we become less susceptible to these AI-driven attacks on our attention (and sometimes our wallets)? The best solution is to enhance our emotional intelligence, something few of us learn to do over the course of a traditional education. Emotional intelligence is merely the ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own emotions, a process that makes us less susceptible to outside influences of all kinds. By understanding the “why” of our desires, we are more able to resist unhealthy impulses. The less “hackable” we are, the more able we are to hang on to our own time, money, and attention and direct them towards productive ends, like acquiring new marketable skills.
Learn to Expect Disruption
We often refer to the future—and some would now say current—prevalence of AI as “the augmented age.” But we could just as easily call it “the age of disruption.” The constant changes and iterations that are enabled by AI will make the next period of our history less stable and more changeable than any we have experienced before. We aren’t just turning a corner into a new era, as we were during the Industrial Revolution, we are instead entering a period when change will become more of a constant than constancy.
Just as emotional intelligence can help humans avoid being manipulated by advertisers, other “soft skills” like creative thinking, problem solving, and especially flexibility are key to navigating the constant change that we can expect in the workplaces of the future. Rather than fearing disruption, we can instead learn to expect it and to be prepared to leverage our less career-specific skills to remain competitive.
Learn to Learn
Because our future is one of constant disruption, it must also be one of constant reinvention. Humans have long been afraid that AI would eventually learn to do all of our jobs, leaving humans with no work to do at all. To some extent this is true: AI may eliminate some of the most rote, repetitive, and dangerous jobs from the human repertoire. However, it can never replace the human ability to innovate and invent. What AI will do is simply speed the rate at which we are able to innovate and reinvent, which means that the jobs we do will evolve and shift far more rapidly than they ever have before.
Your father or grandfather most likely went to school, whether to earn a professional degree like a JD or to acquire a physical skill like welding, with the expectation that he would begin a career and stick with it over the course of his working life, achieving increasing levels of success and compensation until retirement. That model is already becoming dated, and for members of the millennial generation, it is often an impossible model to follow. Ten or twenty years from now, it may only exist for key fields like general medicine and for specialty creative trades like visual art. The average “knowledge worker” will need to re-skill every several years in order to keep working and stay competitive in any field. This means learning to learn quickly and accurately, and learning to be highly adaptable.
One thing these three aspects of a forward-looking education have in common is their reliance on skills that we can’t really be taught in a classroom or in front of a screen. In order to become emotionally intelligent, flexible, creative, and adaptable, we have to commit to challenging ourselves regularly to acquire new skills, tackle daunting tasks, leave our comfort zones in the professional world, and get to know ourselves better than our smartphone knows us.
Because no one can predict the career-specific skills that we’ll need to succeed in the AI-driven marketplace of ten, twenty, or thirty years in the future, we’re better off focusing on developing skills that we can leverage in any career at all.