Developing technical, competitive people

  • Education
  • Sunday, 29 Apr 2018

“YES, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

This was a recent tweet from Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, as his company was caught in what he described as “manufacturing hell.” The company had failed to hit its weekly production target of its mid-priced Model 3 vehicles and excessive automation is blamed for that.

A McKinsey & Company report predicts that by 2030, 800 million jobs will disappear, mainly through automation, and while the tweet by Musk will do little to slow this trend, it helps shed some interesting light on the nature of work in general and how the relationship between humans and robots will evolve. Most types of human work require a combination of three types of labour, the physical labour, the cognitive labour and the emotional labour.

Machines have been gradually displacing humans as far as the physical labour is concerned. This started since the invention of the wheel in Mesopotamia and has been accelerating with industrial revolution.

With developments in computing in the mid of last century, machines slowly displaced humans in the provision of cognitive labour.

This started with matters related to rote memory and calculation and moved up the value chain towards analysis and pattern recognition, especially when the work requires processing huge sets of data. Machines now routinely surpass human capabilities even in complex strategy games such as Chess and Go.

The progress made in integrating the machines’ physical and cognitive labours started what is now dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution and fuelled the prediction that robotics and automation will keep on replacing humans delivering better quality work for a much reduced cost.

This of course has wide reaching implications for the society, education systems and policy making. But before going further into this, let us examine few things.

The cognitive labour has different levels, these start with memorising, moves up to analysis and pattern recognition and reach their pinnacle with creativity and innovation. While there are some attempts with machine poetry and art creation, machines in general still have a long way to go to match the human ability to generate truly new ground breaking concepts and true art.

The other highly important point is that the third type of labour, the emotional labour, can be delivered almost exclusively by humans. It refers to the ability to be self-aware, empathise, connect, respect and recognise others.

This realisation has important implications for employers, policy makers, educational institutions and our youth as they start developing themselves for success in the 21st century.

Understanding the three types of labour (physical, cognitive, emotional) and how do they contribute to the dynamics of job creation and destruction is important to future-proof humans.

While most of the educational effort is currently focused on developing the cognitive capabilities, it is essential that academic institutions put emphasis on developing the emotional potential of students too. This is not only necessary because the ability to deliver emotional labour will be a critical prerequisite for being gainfully employed, but also because the mental health is being realised as a universal concern with stress becoming a global pandemic.

For the most of our history, we lived in a “Stuff Economy” where value, wealth and power were mainly measured by physical possession.

The past few decades represented the climax of the “Knowledge Economy” where the cognitive capabilities corresponded to value, power and wealth more than any other time. It is the era where companies such as Google or Facebook, with relatively little physical possession, could rival behemoths such as General Electric in market value.

We are now moving into the era of the “Emotional Economy” where the ability to connect with others and exhibit respect and empathy will be the sign of delivering true and unrivalled value. Stuff and knowledge will gain a huge value when they are underpinned by the right emotional content. This era will require that we rewrite our playbook in education, HR, marketing, engineering and governance. It is the responsibility of every one of us to support our youth to succeed and thrive in such a different environment.

I believe that the starting point is an education system that embraces the role of developing not only technically competitive individuals, but also emotionally intelligent ones.


Provost and CEO

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia

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