Augmented intelligence: Educating skilled labor for the machine age

What is the future of work and learning in the 21st century? Even as mounting demand to advance human capital has triggered a wide-ranging debate about the kinds of skills and competencies needed to drive advanced capitalist economies, questions remain about the future of work and learning. According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee (2014), for example, postindustrial economies are now moving into a “Second Machine Age” in which advanced technologies are beginning to displace rudimentary labor across multiple fields. But how has technology actually impacted the skills and requirements of knowledge workers over the past two decades? What professional capacities are being augmented by technology?

This is the subject of research that Kevin Stolarick and I are exploring with the larger purpose of reexamining contemporary education policies in the United States. Looking specifically at white-collar professions over the course of several decades, we have discovered a compelling narrative underlying technology’s impact on work and learning. Close analysis of U.S. data on skilled labor (generally classified as “knowledge work") suggests that the trajectory of work in the 21st century is changing. The acceleration of artificial intelligence and robotics, for example, indicates that strategies for reforming U.S. education will need to take technological innovation into account.

While the next wave of automating technologies will likely displace a wide range of occupations, it remains the case that technology is complementary to some kinds of creative work. Indeed, it is our view that the digitization of labor is likely to further increase the demand for creativity and creative skills. This interpretation of labor trends is supported by research in Europe as well. According to a recent report from the British think tank Nesta, creative work remains the only strategic response to automation. Their key finding is that creative occupations are much more resistant to computerization. This actually makes a lot of sense when one considers the capacities of computers to replicate tasks that are well defined. Knowledge workers who can leverage technology to augment creative work and learning will have a competitive advantage in the 21st century.

It was Douglas Engelbart (1962) who first understood that computer technologies are critical to augmenting human capabilities in bootstrapping cognitive performance. Building on Engelbart’s insights, we are developing a new edited collection entitled Augmented Intelligence: Smart Systems and the Future of Work and Learning, that seeks to better understand the challenges of machine intelligence. Given the inherent capacity of technology to automate labor, it stands to reason that developing the right set of educational policies is now critical to the future prosperity of the United States and other advanced economies.

A key challenge going forward is the need to reframe education in order to avoid labor redundancy. As technology advances, creativity and entrepreneurship will become increasingly important to knowledge work. For this reason, educational strategies will need to explicitly pair creativity with technology in order to ensure that students have the capacity to adapt to economic changes over the long-term. Most importantly, educators and policymakers will need to better understand the role that technology now plays in skilled work in order to respond to the rising challenge of underemployment.