From rote learning to robotics
A session at the 2016 OECD Forum entitled “Teaching & Learning with Robots” brought Nao, a humanoid robot, to meet with a class of young students from the Sections Internationales de Sèvres (SIS) school. Catherine Potter-Jadas, head of the primary school, noted the children’s reactions to the robot.
Educators will take comfort from views such as: “For the moment, the robot can’t replace teachers because, in a country like France, children are too immature, and because they need a real human to control them. A robot wouldn’t have the authority.” In fact, most of the children saw the robot as useful assistant, rather than a substitute: “I think it’s great that a robot helps children in schools. They’ll find it interesting and become more open” said one, echoed by a classmate who thought that “Nao could be really helpful to education.” And of course some were more attracted to the entertainment value: “When the presenter said ‘Nao can carry anything lighter than a wooden spoon,’ he flexed his muscles! I liked the way the robot laughed and showed his muscles, it made me think of an odd little creature.”
Robots first made their appearance in industry, starting in the automobile sector in the 1960s. For decades, industrial robots were bulky and expensive. They were operated from stationary posts inside the workshop, and they carried out a small number of repetitive tasks, sometimes dangerous ones like soldering and cutting metal. With improvements in technologies, a second generation of robots was born. Less bulky and expensive, more autonomous, adaptable and cooperative, these robots are programmable and can be used by workers without any specific qualifications. They can also play new roles in services, health (surgical operations), education, training, commercial information, services to the elderly…
The children’s comments and questions raised a number of issues about the evolving role of technology in society and the economy, and how to equip people to take advantage of the profound impacts digital technologies will have on all of us. The majority of concerns related to robots are based on loss of jobs in developed economies. That said, there could be a “relocation” of low-skilled jobs to countries that have robots.
It is quite clear that challenges to the development of robots remain, in particular in the areas of perception, specific object recognition in a visually cluttered environment, object manipulation, and cognition. But smarter and more autonomous robots will soon be a reality thanks to improvements in a number of areas, including computational performance, electromechanical design tools and computer numerical control machines, storage of electrical energy and energy efficiency of power electronics, availability and quality of local digital (wireless) communication, scale and effectiveness of the Internet, and data storage capacities and their computational power.
In the commercial and industrial sector, beyond the improvements in reliability of manufacturing processes, robots have already shortened delays in the manufacturing of finished products, which allows for greater reactivity to detailed variations in demand. The market for personal domestic robots is growing from year to year (20% a year), while the prices should drop in the near future.
But even if people with no particular training will be able to use the next-generation of robots, those who have not mastered ICTs will find themselves more and more limited in their access to many basic services, to rewarding jobs, and to opportunities to improve their skills through training. Without ignoring the problems that arise from the disappearance of certain jobs and the serious repercussions on people and society, we must acknowledge that these innovations are full of opportunities for productivity development; they could create the new jobs of tomorrow.
It stands to reason that workers who acquire the skills necessary to adapt to changes in their line of work will be less vulnerable to replacement by digital technology. The innovations sparked by digital technologies could also present the potential for development and management of social improvements, in areas like public administration, health, education, and research. The creation of huge amounts of data and the capacity to extract knowledge and information from this data (known as big data) will launch a new wave of innovation, the creation of new services, the emergence of new products and markets…
Employee skills management will become vital in order for companies to adapt to rapid technological change, with support from complementary public investment in, for example, education and training. Primary and secondary schools will be responsible for preparing young people for an interconnected world where they will live with people of different origins and cultures, an undeniably “globalised” world.
The children from SIS didn’t sound at all worried by the prospects of more and better robots, quite the contrary: “I found it quite amazing and fabulous that technology is able to do such things. The people who built Nao must be very proud of their invention.”