There has been much speculation and justified anxiety concerning how advances in Computer Science (in the field of Artificial Intelligence – AI – in particular) and Robotics could result in mass unemployment due to automation. However, the fact that compulsory education exacerbates this especially problematic aspect of technological progress is largely neglected in such discussions.
Although AI does indeed pose a threat for many jobs that can be automated (in manufacturing, for example), there are many more ‘jobs’ that require human creativity and imagination. Furthermore, even the AIs will have to be monitored; Amitai Etzioni and Oren Etzioni (2016), for example, wrote most recently in The Communications of the ACM (in an article entitled “Designing AI Systems that Obey Our Laws and Values”) about the need for ‘AI Guardians’ and argued that a human element is required to ensure that AI systems perform their functions properly, safely and effectively. However, such ‘Guardians’ (essentially, monitoring systems) require imagination and creativity to implement — this is one of many arguments as to why AI can never truly replace the ‘need’ for humans. In this, and in many other ways, AI cannot wholly replace the need for humanity in various ‘tasks’.
Although no-one truly understands the human mind, I would conjecture that Immanuel Kant, in The Critique of Pure Reason, provides an extremely systematic (albeit dense and debated) understanding of what makes human knowledge possible. To put one of his important points crudely, he argues that knowledge has its ultimate source in the ‘faculty of the imagination’ (though his understanding of imagination is more broad and also more nuanced than that which we customarily encounter in contemporary parlance). Essentially, however, it is imagination that ‘Robots’ and ‘AI’ lack because we do not understand how to ‘program’ an authentic, synthetic imagination when constructing ‘intelligence’.
This means that all jobs that require imagination (many, as you can imagine) can never truly be replaced through automation (although they can be made easier). This means that, so long as society fosters creativity and imagination in individuals, there will not be a dearth of employment opportunities. However, when compulsory education is imposed and enforced in such a way that it conditions, disciplines and restricts imagination, it means that any job loss through automation will be far more painful and difficult to treat.
Whether one reads Adam Smith or Karl Marx, one of the fundamental, defining characteristics of Capitalism is the ‘Division of Labour’ and compulsory schooling serves to reinforce this by conditioning people into becoming human components of a vast, factory assembly line. How can we have any hope of exercising the full potential of our imagination when we are conditioned, from an early age, into behaving like the robots we are in the process of constructing to automate these mundane tasks?
How can we hope to advance mathematics when we are taught, from an early age, that it is simply a rudimentary tool through which to make calculations under specific circumstances and for specific calculations rather than a language through which to explore and expand the frontiers of human knowledge? How can we hope to envision and work toward a more ideal society when we are disciplined, from an early age, to learn the ‘skills’ that are supposedly necessary to conform to, live within and reinforce our existing one? How can we hope to contribute to and benefit from the beauty of technological progress when we are largely conditioned to be potential victims to its risks?
How can we live freely when we spend many formative, crucial years of our lives in institutions that are essentially glorified jails for innocent kids? Max Stirner concluded The False Principle of Our Education by stating that “the necessary decline of non-voluntary learning and rise of the self-assured will which perfects itself in the glorious sunlight of the free person may be expressed somewhat as follows: knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.”
Compulsory education exacerbates the risk to peoples’ livelihoods posed by technological progress by conditioning, disciplining and thereby restricting peoples’ faculties of imagination. Indeed, Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that education systems work to reinforce their corresponding scientific paradigms and strengthen inherent resistance to paradigm shifts. Therefore, we are not only more vulnerable to the risks of technological progress due to compulsory education but we are also impeding that same progress.
Anyone who is serious about discussing and tackling the unemployment risks related to technological progress through task automation should, therefore, consider how compulsory education serves to unnecessarily and unjustly heighten those risks.