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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Can Arts and Humanities Graduates Defeat the Rise of the Robots?

Monday, December 14, 2015

If you glance at the statistics for graduate employment, the Arts and Humanities may appear to be in trouble. Arts and Humanities graduates are more likely to be unemployed or in part-time work than their STEM counterparts; an average salary for an English graduate is about £10 000 less than for a Chemical Engineering graduate.

However, statistics such as average earnings only tell part of the story. Whole life qualities such as job satisfaction, work-life balance, or (especially pertinent in the Arts and Humanities, in which two thirds of students are female) the ability to have flexible careers also matter - although you will rarely see these counted in the higher education marketplace where the only values of concern are those that can be tabulated in a spreadsheet.

Looming on the horizon, though, is another issue which even the most hard-nosed economist should take note of. This is the extent to which different degree qualifications may provide job security against the onrushing tide of automatisation.

In their recent book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew Mcaffee foresee how new technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics promise to improve our lives and social infrastructure, but also threaten to remove whole swathes of jobs from the economy. The most obvious example (as predicted by The Simpsons) is that of autonomous vehicles, which may make taxi drivers, truckers and delivery drivers redundant. As has been true since the Luddites smashed the Jacquard loom, the categories of work that are most threatened by automation will initially be those that entail manual labour. However, while historically those professions have subsequently been replaced by alternative work (think of the person who moves from assembling cars to repairing the robot that assembles the cars), in the twenty-first century there may be fewer substitute categories of work on the horizon. As Derek Thompson has pointed out in his brilliantly depressing Atlantic piece on A World Without Work:
Nine out of 10 workers today are in occupations that existed 100 years ago, and just 5 percent of the jobs generated between 1993 and 2013 came from “high tech” sectors like computing, software, and telecommunications. Our newest industries tend to be the most labor-efficient: they just don’t require many people.
It is these niche high-tech sectors that, for the first time, may be most threatened by the advent of algorithmic learning, computer problem solving, and the digital economy. Consider two revealing examples: the growth of AI website builders such as The Grid, and out-sourced programming pools.

This is where the recent NESTA report that the UK is home to a fifth of creative workers in Europe becomes especially interesting. As The Guardian mentioned in a comment piece on the report, the creative economy may be one sector that is protected against automation, given that creativity is something machines are not (yet) particularly good at. A machine may be able to build a car, but is not able to design it in a way that will marry aesthetics to engineering in a pleasing and efficient way. Robots can perform in plays, but can't write them. The digital age may have allowed us to visit museums virtually, but that has only boosted the demand for visits in person to thoughtfully curated exhibitions.

Of course, the knots linking graduates to careers are very tangled, and it's not possible to suggest that a more creative and less vocational degree necessarily offers better long term security against the trends of the future. Equally, it's evident that there are whole swathes of professions requiring science, engineering, medical backgrounds that will not only survive but thrive in the new economy.

Nevertheless, given that Arts and Humanities are under increasing pressure to prove their worth, and are continually undermined at a political level (witness, for instance, the recent extension of student loans to Equivalent Level Qualification students in STEM subjects alone), we in these disciplines ought surely to scope out the field and to consider the implications of the rise of automation.

Might the soft and transferable skills that we teach be precisely those that are safest from unplanned obsolescence?

As it stands, it's pretty hard to see how we might set about examining this question further. The key dataset - HESA's Destinations of Leavers in Higher Education - is not particularly instructive. Industry fields are lumped together in broad headings such as 'Manufacturing' or 'Construction', but these encapsulate a range of skills, from manual industry (which may be threatened) to creative skills such as design or architecture (which may be safe). Equally 'Education', a destination for a significant proportion of Arts and Humanities graduates, covers primary through to higher, but while Higher Education teaching may be eroded with the advent of MOOCs, it's hard to see that primary teachers could be eliminated by the digital community any time soon (robots make pretty poor Kindergarten Cops!). To untangle these treads, we need finer data that thinks more carefully about what individual jobs entail, and where the skills to do them might come from: are they degree level skills or derived from elsewhere?

Until we have such data in our hands, faced with the rise of the robots, I'd probably still take an Uzi 9mm above an intimate knowledge of sixteenth-century French prosody.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:31 pm

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