EXCLUSIVE - Learning to learn – Preparing for the fourth industrial revolution
The theme at this year’s Asia-Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE) Conference was ‘The Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on Higher Education in the Asia Pacific’.
During the First Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries steam power was used to mechanise production. The Second used electricity to enable mass production. The Third was about the use of electronics and information technology to automate production. Each of these caused massive disruptions. Still it seems somehow different this time.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterised by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and challenging ideas about what it means to be human.
OpenGov had the opportunity to speak to Professor Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development, University of Oxford, about the fourth industrial revolution and how we might benefit from the opportunities, while mitigating the risks.
Fourth vs the previous three
We asked Prof Goldin about the fourth industrial revolution is different from the previous three.
He replied, “I think this is very different. I think about it as a new renaissance in many ways, not just an industrial revolution. It’s different in the speed, different in the breadth and depth, and it’s not really about industry only. It’s much broader.”
Prof Goldin explained the comparison of the fourth industrial revolution with the Renaissance saying that both are information revolutions.
Previous industrial revolutions were very slow in their global spread. There are still parts of the world that haven’t been touched by the first industrial revolution. There are parts of Africa or Asia where people are still pulling handmade ploughs behind oxen. But now they have a mobile phone in their hands, that’s the difference.
The spread this time is very rapid and it’s not limited to industry. If we look at technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and genomics, their impact goes way beyond industry, Prof Goldin said. They affect every aspect of society.
The previous three previous industrial revolutions created more jobs, which were also higher quality and cleaner jobs. So, although they were extremely disruptive they ultimately led to improvements in human society. The ultimate outcome was positive.
“The jury is still out and will be out on this one because the number of jobs that exist afterwards will be much smaller. And the quality might not be higher. Because they might become like more gig workers say, less career jobs, less skilled in some respects,” Prof Golding said.
This means that the social reaction could be significantly bigger than the previous revolutions. Moreover, different countries will have different attitudes to the developments. Some will embrace it and move very quickly. Some will reject it and go much slower, resulting in dramatic differences in the speed of change in different places.
Benefiting from the opportunities, while mitigating the risks
Prof Goldin said that if we have to ensure that we benefit from the opportunities afforded by Industry 4.0, we have to develop education systems which train students to keep learning.
“Not learning things by heart. But rather learning to learn. The curiosity and the learning ability is very very important,” he said. And this has to start from a very young age, at kindergarten level or even before.
We should also focus on areas, such as creative skills, caring skills, empathy, that machines are not very competent at, at least for now.
But what happens to older people who are replaced by technology and lose their jobs and then are unable to acquire a new skill set.
Prof Goldin said, “The question of what you do, when people don’t have it in their 30s, 40s, 50s, is a difficult one. Because the older you get the harder it is to change in a way.”
Prof Goldin thinks that the resistance to change is partly about a desire for security. So, giving people the assurance that they don’t have to lose what’s important to them, like values, culture, identity, would be important in creating openness to technology among older generations. Because adoption of technology does not have to be a trade-off. In fact, it creates new opportunities.
We had another follow-up question for Prof Goldin with regards to education. There’s talk of the need for interdisciplinary work to address complex multifaceted challenges. But over the past century, there has been a trend towards increasing hyper-specialisation. So, should there be a move towards multi-disciplinary education? Does lack of communication between disciplines hinder innovation and the ability to see the big picture?
“If you want to advance a field, you have to understand it in great detail. You have to know what everyone else knows and more. And that requires more and more specialisation because the amount of knowledge is growing all the time. So, it’s impossible for any one person to master many, many fields. There are some people, true geniuses. But they are truly exceptional people. Most of us are lucky if we can master one field,” Prof Goldin said.
The solution might be to achieve a T- shape in an individual’s knowledge structure – combining very deep learning, with a very broad set of interests and abilities. Today resources (Youtube videos, blogs, discussion forums and networks, books) are available to cultivate curiosity and acquire knowledge in many different fields, even though you might be an expert in one field.
“If you only do one, you are not going to be a very useful member of society in terms of being able to engage on important issues facing the world and your community.”
Understanding the societal impact and spillover effects of technology
The next important area is to understand the relations between technological change and social values.
Prof Goldin elaborated, “What do we want? Do we want enhanced humans? Do we want growing inequality? What is the ethical and other basis for the use of technologies.”
Prof Goldin also pointed to the spillover effects, such that the technologies are having bigger impact on each other and on the planet. We have to be responsible with regards to that and the choices we make. It also needs to be recognised that the market is only one aspect of choice, an important one, but not the only one. We might also need to accept restraints on our freedoms.
“What we do, how much energy we consume, how much tuna we eat. All of these things will have spillovers. My sense is that we are going to need to have a combination of a knowledge of more technology, more ethics and more flexibility because we are going to have to keep changing,” Prof Goldin explained.
But are societies prepared to accept those restraints on freedom, we asked Prof Goldin.
In response, he brought up the example of Singapore, where people are willing to accept restrictions because they understand that those are required for progress at the pace and scale which Singapore has experienced and is still undergoing.
“I think my own sense, is that in many Asian countries there is a deeper understanding of the limits of the market and of the role of state, than there is in say the US or even in England, where the market is much supreme and where restrictions particularly in the US on freedom, even on something which seems to me to be pretty obvious, like guns, people regard as unacceptable,” Prof Goldin said.
In Asia, the role of the active state in building the hardware and the software for the future, the infrastructure, the roads, the education, etc. is more widely accepted.
And he believes that this acceptance of the balance between market and state in society is one of the reasons because of which Asia will experience higher rates of growth.