iPhones and Children Are a Toxic Pair, Say Two Big Apple Investors

The Wall Street Journal

Two activist shareholders want Apple to develop tools and research effects on young people of smartphone overuse and addiction

Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1.
Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1. PHOTO: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

The iPhone has made Apple Inc. AAPL 1.03% and Wall Street hundreds of billions of dollars. Now some big shareholders are asking at what cost, in an unusual campaign to make the company more socially responsible.

A leading activist investor and a pension fund are saying the smartphone maker needs to respond to what some see as a growing public-health crisis of youth phone addiction.

Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or Calstrs, which control about $2 billion of Apple shares, sent a letter to Apple on Saturday urging it to develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily and to study the impact of overuse on mental health.

The Apple push is a preamble to a new several-billion-dollar fund Jana is seeking to raise this year to target companies it believes can be better corporate citizens. It is the first instance of a big Wall Street activist seeking to profit from the kind of social-responsibility campaign typically associated with a small fringe of investors.

Adding splash, rock star Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, will be on an advisory board along with Sister Patricia A. Daly, a nun who successfully fought Exxon Mobil Corp. over environmental disclosures, and Robert Eccles, an expert on sustainable investing.

The Apple campaign would be unusual for an activist like Jana, which normally urges companies to make financial changes. But the investors believe that Apple’s highflying stock could be hurt in coming decades if it faces a backlash and that proactive moves could generate goodwill and keep consumers loyal to Apple brands.

“Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” the shareholders wrote in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility.”

Obsessive teenage smartphone usage has sparked a debate among academics, parents and even the people who helped create the iPhone.

Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017.
Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017. PHOTO: ROBERT ALEXANDER/GETTY IMAGES

Some have raised concerns about increased rates in teen depression and suicide and worry that phones are replacing old-fashioned human interaction. It is part of a broader re-evaluation of the effects on society of technology companies such as Google and Amazon.com Inc.and social-media companies like Facebook Inc. and Snap chat owner Snap Inc., which are facing questions about their reach into everyday life.

Apple hasn’t offered any public guidance to parents on how to manage children’s smartphone use or taken a position on at what age they should begin using iPhones.

Apple and its rivals point to features that give parents some measure of control. Apple, for instance, gives parents the ability to choose which apps, content and services their children can access.

The basic idea behind socially responsible investing is that good corporate citizenship can also be good business. Big investors and banks, including TPG, UBS Group AG and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.are making bets on socially responsible companies, boosting what they see as good actors and avoiding bad ones.

How the iPhone Was Born: Inside Stories of Missteps and Triumphs
On the iPhone’s 10th birthday, former Apple executives Scott Forstall, Tony Fadell and Greg Christie recount the arduous process of turning Steve Jobs’s vision into one of the best-selling products ever made. (Originally published June 25, 2017)

Big-name activists increasingly view bad environmental, social or governance policies as red flags. Jana plans to go further, putting its typical tools to work to drive change that may not immediately pay off.

Apple is an ambitious first target: The combined Jana-Calstrs stake is relatively small given Apple’s nearly $900 billion market value. Still, in recent years Apple has twice faced activists demanding it pare its cash holdings, and both times the company ceded some ground.

 

Chief Executive Tim Cook has led Apple’s efforts to be a more socially responsible company, for instance on environmental and immigration issues, and said in an interview with the New York Times last year that Apple has a “moral responsibility” to help the U.S. economy.

Apple has shown willingness to use software to address potentially negative consequences of phone usage. Amid rising concerns about distracted driving, the company last year updated its software with a “do not disturb while driving” feature, which enables the iPhone to detect when someone is behind the wheel and automatically silence notifications.

The iPhone is the backbone of a business that generated $48.35 billion in profit in fiscal 2017. It helped turn Apple into the world’s largest publicly listed company by market value, and anticipation of strong sales of its latest model, the iPhone X, helped its stock rise 50% in the past year. Apple phones made up 43% of U.S. smartphones in use in 2016, according to comScore , and an estimated 86 million Americans over age 13 own an iPhone.

Jana and Calstrs are working with Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, who chronicled the problem of what she has dubbed the “iGen” in a book that was previewed in a widely discussed article in the Atlantic magazine last fall, and with Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, known as “the mediatrician” for his work on the impact of media on children.

The investors believe both the content and the amount of time spent on phones need to be tailored to youths, and they are raising concern about the public-health effects of failing to act. They point to research from Ms. Twenge and others about a “growing body of evidence” of “unintentional negative side effects,” including studies showing concerns from teachers. That is one reason Calstrs was eager to support the campaign, according to the letter.

The group wants Apple to help find solutions to questions like what is optimal usage and to be at the forefront of the industry’s response—before regulators or consumers potentially force it to act.

The investors say Apple should make it easier and more intuitive for parents to set up usage limits, which could head off any future moves to proscribe smartphones.

The question is “How can we apply the same kind of public-health science to this that we do to, say, nutrition?” Dr. Rich said in an interview. “We aren’t going to tell you never go to Mickey D’s, but we are going to tell you what a Big Mac will do and what broccoli will do.”

(We’d like to hear from you: Is smartphone addiction among young people a public-health concern? Should companies like Apple be held responsible for tackling the issue? Email us at socialmedia@wsj.com with your comments.)

Write to David Benoit at david.benoit@wsj.com

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OPEN LETTER FROM JANA PARTNERS AND CALSTRS TO APPLE INC.

Think Differently About Kids

January 6, 2018

Board of Directors
Apple Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, California 95014

Ladies & Gentlemen,

JANA Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (“we” or “us”) collectively own approximately $2 billion in value of shares of Apple Inc. (“Apple” or “you”).  As shareholders, we recognize your unique role in the history of innovation and the fact that Apple is one of the most valuable brand names in the world.  In partnership with experts including Dr. Michael Rich, founding director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Professor Jean M. Twenge, psychologist at San Diego State University and author of the book iGen, we have reviewed the evidence and we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner.  By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.  As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world.  In fact, we believe that addressing this issue now will enhance long-term value for all shareholders, by creating more choices and options for your customers today and helping to protect the next generation of leaders, innovators, and customers tomorrow.

More than 10 years after the iPhone’s release, it is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group. What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences:

  • A study conducted recently by the Center on Media and Child Health and the University of Alberta found that 67% of the over 2,300 teachers surveyed observed that the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing and 75% say students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased. In the past 3 to 5 years since personal technologies have entered the classroom, 90% stated that the number of students with emotional challenges has increased and 86% said the number with social challenges has increased.  One junior high teacher noted that, “I see youth who used to go outside at lunch break and engage in physical activity and socialization.  Today, many of our students sit all lunch hour and play on their personal devices.”[i]
  • Professor Twenge’s research shows that U.S. teenagers who spend 3 hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely, and those who spend 5 hours or more are 71% more likely, to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than 1 hour.[ii]
  • This research also shows that 8th graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27% higher risk of depression, while those who exceed the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends in person, or doing homework have a significantly lower risk.  Experiencing depression as a teenager significantly increases the risk of becoming depressed again later in life.[iii]
  • Also, teens who spend 5 or more hours a day (versus less than 1) on electronic devices are 51% more likely to get less than 7 hours of sleep (versus the recommended 9).  Sleep deprivation is linked to long-term issues like weight gain and high blood pressure.[iv]
  • A study by UCLA researchers showed that after 5 days at a device-free outdoor camp, children performed far better on tests for empathy than a control group.[v]
  • According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey of over 3,500 U.S. parents, 58% say they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s physical and mental health, 48% say that regulating their child’s screen time is a “constant battle,” and 58% say they feel like their child is “attached” to their phone or tablet.[vi]

Some may argue that the research is not definitive, that other factors are also at work, and that in any case parents must take ultimate responsibility for their children.  These statements are undoubtedly true, but they also miss the point.  The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10vii and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking).viii  78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling “addicted” to their phones.ix It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.  It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged.x  According to the APA survey cited above, 94% of parents have taken some action to manage their child’s technology use, but it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.  Imagine the goodwill Apple can generate with parents by partnering with them in this effort and with the next generation of customers by offering their parents more options to protect their health and well-being.

To be clear, we are not advocating an all or nothing approach.  While expert opinions vary on this issue, there appears to be a developing consensus that the goal for parents should be ensuring the developmentally optimal amount and type of access, particularly given the educational benefits mobile devices can offer.  For example, Professor Twenge’s research cited above has revealed peak mental health levels among teenagers who use devices 1 hour or less a day, with teens engaging in this limited use happier than teens who do not use devices at all.  According to a study of more than 10,000 North American parents conducted by researcher Alexandra Samuel, the children of parents who focus primarily on denying screen access are more likely to engage in problematic behaviors online than the children of parents who take an active role in guiding their technology usage.xi  Likewise, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health have found that while using a high number of social media platforms daily is linked to depression and anxiety in young adults, using a limited number does not have the same impact.xii

While these studies (and common sense) would suggest a balanced approach, we note that Apple’s current limited set of parental controls in fact dictate a more binary, all or nothing approach, with parental options limited largely to shutting down or allowing full access to various tools and functions.  While there are apps that offer more options, there are a dizzying array of them (which often leads people to make no choice at all), it is not clear what research has gone into developing them, few if any offer the full array of options that the research would suggest, and they are clearly no substitute for Apple putting these choices front and center for parents.  As Apple understands better than any company, technology is best when it is intuitive and easy to use.  More importantly, technology will continue to evolve as time goes on and play a greater and greater role in all of our lives.  There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility to an app designer, or more accurately to hundreds of app designers, none of whom have critical mass.

This is a complex issue and we hope that this is the start of a constructive and well-informed dialogue, but we think there are clear initial steps that Apple can follow, including:

  • Expert Committee: Convening a committee of experts including child development specialists (we would recommend Dr. Rich and Professor Twenge be included) to help study this issue and monitor ongoing developments in technology, including how such developments are integrated into the lives of children and teenagers.
  • Research: Partnering with these and other experts and offering your vast information resources to assist additional research efforts.
  • New Tools and Options: Based on the best available research, enhancing mobile device software so that parents (if they wish) can implement changes so that their child or teenager is not being handed the same phone as a 40-year old, just as most products are made safer for younger users.  For example, the initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.
  • Education: Explaining to parents why Apple is offering additional choices and the research that went into them, to help parents make more informed decisions.
  • Reporting: Hiring or assigning a high-level executive to monitor this issue and issuing annual progress reports, just as Apple does for environmental and supply chain issues.

It is true that Apple’s customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high, which is no surprise given the quality of its products.  However, there is also a growing societal unease about whether at least some people are getting too much of a good thing when it comes to technology,xiii which at some point is likely to impact even Apple given the issues described above.  In fact, even the original designers of the iPhone user interface and Apple’s current chief design officer have publicly worried about the iPhone’s potential for overuse,xiv and there is no good reason why you should not address this issue proactively.  As one of the most innovative companies in the history of technology, Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do.  Doing so poses no threat to Apple, given that this is a software (not hardware) issue and that, unlike many other technology companies, Apple’s business model is not predicated on excessive use of your products. In fact, we believe addressing this issue now by offering parents more tools and choices could enhance Apple’s business and increase demand for its products.

Increasingly today the gap between “short-term” and “long-term” thinking is narrowing, on issues like public health, human capital management, environmental protection, and more, and companies pursuing business practices that make short-term sense may be undermining their own long-term viability. In the case of Apple, we believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the Company itself, are inextricably linked, and thus the only difference between the changes we are advocating at Apple now and the type of change shareholders are better known for advocating is the time period over which they will enhance and protect value. As you can imagine, this is a matter of particular concern for CalSTRS’ beneficiaries, the teachers of California, who care deeply about the health and welfare of the children in their classrooms.

While you may already have started work on addressing the issues raised here, we would nonetheless appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter further with the board to bring in a wider range of voices. We also encourage you to discuss this matter directly with Dr. Rich, Professor Twenge, or any member of JANA’s board of advisors for our new impact investing fund, which includes Patricia A. Daly, OP, Professor Robert G. Eccles, Sting, and Trudie Styler. In the meantime, should you wish to contact us we can be reached at (212) 455-0900 or (916) 414-7410.

Sincerely,

Barry Rosenstein
Managing Partner
JANA Partners LLC

Anne Sheehan
Director of Corporate Governance
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System

The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students

 December 20, 2017

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.

This post explains what Google learned about its employees, and what that means for students across the country.  It was written by Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a professor in the doctoral program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of the new book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.” She also serves on the Mozilla Foundation board of directors,  and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities.

By Cathy N. Davidson

All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready.  But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?  After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.

Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.

STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.

No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.

Will Robots Take Our Children’s Jobs?

Photo

CreditRichie Pope

Like a lot of children, my sons, Toby, 7, and Anton, 4, are obsessed with robots. In the children’s books they devour at bedtime, happy, helpful robots pop up more often than even dragons or dinosaurs. The other day I asked Toby why children like robots so much.

“Because they work for you,” he said.

What I didn’t have the heart to tell him is, someday he might work for them — or, I fear, might not work at all, because of them.

It is not just Elon MuskBill Gates and Stephen Hawking who are freaking out about the rise of invincible machines. Yes, robots have the potential to outsmart us and destroy the human race. But first, artificial intelligence could make countless professions obsolete by the time my sons reach their 20s.

You do not exactly need to be Marty McFly to see the obvious threats to our children’s future careers.

Say you dream of sending your daughter off to Yale School of Medicine to become a radiologist. And why not? Radiologists in New York typically earn about $470,000, according to Salary.com.

But that job is suddenly looking iffy as A.I. gets better at reading scans. A start-up called Arterys, to cite just one example, already has a program that can perform a magnetic-resonance imaging analysis of blood flow through a heart in just 15 seconds, compared with the 45 minutes required by humans.

Maybe she wants to be a surgeon, but that job may not be safe, either. Robots already assist surgeons in removing damaged organs and cancerous tissue, according to Scientific American. Last year, a prototype robotic surgeon called STAR (Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot) outperformed human surgeons in a test in which both had to repair the severed intestine of a live pig.

Photo

Robots put together vehicle frames on the assembly line at the Peugeot Citroën Moteurs factory.CreditSebastien Bozon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

So perhaps your daughter detours to law school to become a rainmaking corporate lawyer. Skies are cloudy in that profession, too. Any legal job that involves lots of mundane document review (and that’s a lot of what lawyers do) is vulnerable.

Software programs are already being used by companies including JPMorgan Chase & Company to scan legal papers and predict what documents are relevant, saving lots of billable hours. Kira Systems, for example, has reportedly cut the time that some lawyers need to review contracts by 20 to 60 percent.

As a matter of professional survival, I would like to assure my children that journalism is immune, but that is clearly a delusion. The Associated Press already has used a software program from a company called Automated Insights to churn out passable copy covering Wall Street earnings and some college sports, and last year awarded the bots the minor league baseball beat.

What about other glamour jobs, like airline pilot? Well, last spring, a robotic co-pilot developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, flew and landed a simulated 737. I hardly count that as surprising, given that pilots of commercial Boeing 777s, according to one 2015 survey, only spend seven minutes during an average flight actually flying the thing. As we move into the era of driverless cars, can pilotless planes be far behind?

Then there is Wall Street, where robots are already doing their best to shove Gordon Gekko out of his corner office. Big banks are using software programs that can suggest bets, construct hedges and act as robo-economists, using natural language processing to parse central bank commentary to predict monetary policy, according to Bloomberg. BlackRock, the biggest fund company in the world, made waves earlier this year when it announced it was replacing some highly paid human stock pickers with computer algorithms.

So am I paranoid? Or not paranoid enough? A much-quoted 2013 studyby the University of Oxford Department of Engineering Science — surely the most sober of institutions — estimated that 47 percent of current jobs, including insurance underwriter, sports referee and loan officer, are at risk of falling victim to automation, perhaps within a decade or two.

Just this week, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report that found that a third of American workers may have to switch jobs in the next dozen or so years because of A.I.

I know I am not the only parent wondering if I can robot-proof my children’s careers. I figured I would start by asking my own what they want to do when they grow up.

Photo

Elon Musk, the C.E.O. of Tesla Motors. CreditMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Toby, a people pleaser and born entertainer, is obsessed with cars and movies. He told me he wanted to be either an Uber driver or an actor. (He is too young to understand that those jobs are usually one and the same).

As for Uber drivers, it is no secret that they are headed to that great parking garage in the sky; the company recently announced plans to buy 24,000 Volvo sport utility vehicles to roll out as a driverless fleet between 2019 and 2021.

And actors? It may seem unthinkable that some future computer-generated thespian could achieve the nuance of expression and emotional depth of, say, Dwayne Johnson. But Hollywood is already Silicon Valley South. Consider how filmmakers used computer graphics to reanimate Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin as they appeared in the 1970s (never mind that the Mr. Cushing died in 1994) for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

My younger son Anton, a sweetheart, but tough as Kevlar, said he wanted to be a football player. Robot football may sound crazy, but come to think of it, a Monday night battle between the Dallas Cowdroids and Seattle Seabots may be the only solution to the sport’s endless concussion problems.

He also said he wanted to be a soldier. If he means foot soldier, however, he might want to hold off on enlistment. Russia recently unveiled Fedor, a humanoid robot soldier that looks like RoboCop after a Whole30 crash diet; this space-combat-ready android can fire handguns, drive vehicles, administer first aid and, one hopes, salute. Indeed, the world’s armies are in such an arms race developing grunt-bots that one British intelligence expert predicted that American forces will have more robot soldiers than humans by 2025.

And again, all of this stuff is happening now, not 25 years from now. Who knows what the jobs marketplace might look like by then. We might not even be the smartest beings on the planet.

Ever heard of the “singularity”? That is the term that futurists use to describe a potentially cataclysmic point at which machine intelligence catches up to human intelligence, and likely blows right past it. They may rule us. They may kill us. No wonder Mr. Musk says that A.I. “is potentially more dangerous than nukes.”

But is it really that dire? Fears of technology are as old as the Luddites, those machine-smashing British textile workers of the early 19th century. Usually, the fears turn out to be overblown.

The rise of the automobile, to cite the obvious example, did indeed put most manure shovelers out of work. But it created millions of jobs to replace them, not just for Detroit assembly line workers, but for suburban homebuilders, Big Mac flippers and actors performing “Greased Lightnin’” in touring revivals of “Grease.” That is the process of creative destruction in a nutshell.

But artificial intelligence is different, said Martin Ford, the author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.”Machine learning does not just give us new machines to replace old machines, pushing human workers from one industry to another. Rather, it gives us new machines to replace us, machines that can follow us to virtually any new industry we flee to.

Since Mr. Ford’s book sent me down this rabbit hole in the first place, I reached out to him to see if he was concerned about all this for his own children: Tristan, 22, Colin, 17, and Elaine, 10.

He said the most vulnerable jobs in the robot economy are those involving predictable, repetitive tasks, however much training they require. “A lot of knowledge-based jobs are really routine — sitting in front of a computer and cranking out the same application over and over, whether it is a report or some kind of quantitative analysis,” he said.

Professions that rely on creative thinking enjoy some protection (Mr. Ford’s older son is a graduate student studying biomedical engineering). So do jobs emphasizing empathy and interpersonal communication (his younger son wants to be a psychologist).

Even so, the ability to think creatively may not provide ultimate salvation. Mr. Ford said he was alarmed in May when Google’s AlphaGo software defeated a 19-year-old Chinese master at Go, considered the world’s most complicated board game.

“If you talk to the best Go players, even they can’t explain what they’re doing,” Mr. Ford said. “They’ll describe it as a ‘feeling.’ It’s moving into the realm of intuition. And yet a computer was able to prove that it can beat anyone in the world.”

Looking for a silver lining, I spent an afternoon Googling TED Talks with catchy titles like “Are Droids Taking Our Jobs?”

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“Rise of the Robots,” by Martin Ford.

In one, Albert Wenger, an influential tech investor, promoted the Basic Income Guarantee concept. Also known as Universal Basic Income, this sunny concept holds that a robot-driven economy may someday produce an unlimited bounty of cool stuff while simultaneously releasing us from the drudgery of old-fashioned labor, leaving our government-funded children to enjoy bountiful lives of leisure as interpretive dancers or practitioners of bee-sting therapy, as touted by Gwyneth Paltrow.

The idea is all the rage among Silicon Valley elites, who not only understand technology’s power, but who also love to believe that it will be used for good. In their vision of a post-A.I. world without traditional jobs, everyone will receive a minimum weekly or monthly stipend (welfare for all, basically).

Another talk by David Autor, an economist, argued that reports of the death of work are greatly exaggerated. Almost 50 years after the introduction of the A.T.M., for instance, more humans actually work as bank tellers than ever. The computers simply freed the humans from mind-numbing work like counting out 20-dollar bills to focus on more cognitively demanding tasks like “forging relationships with customers, solving problems and introducing them to new products like credit cards, loans and investments,” he said.

Computers, after all, are really good at some things and, for the moment, terrible at others. Even Anton intuits this. The other day I asked him if he thought robots were smarter or dumber than humans. “Sdumber,” he said after a long pause. Confused, I pushed him. “Smarter and dumber,” he explained with a cheeky smile.

He was joking. But he also happened to be right, according to Andrew McAfee, a management theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whom I interviewed a short while later.

Discussing another of Anton’s career aspirations — songwriter — Dr. McAfee said that computers were already smart enough to come up with a better melody than a lot of humans. “The things our ears find pleasant, we know the rules for that stuff,” he said. “However, I’m going to be really surprised when there is a digital lyricist out there, somebody who can put words to that music that will actually resonate with people and make them think something about the human condition.”

Not everyone, of course, is cut out to be a cyborg-Springsteen. I asked Dr. McAfee what other jobs may exist a decade from now.

“I think health coaches are going to be a big industry of the future,” he said. “Restaurants that have a very good hospitality staff are not about to go away, even though we have more options to order via tablet.

“People who are interested in working with their hands, they’re going to be fine,” he said. “The robot plumber is a long, long way away.”

CAN ROBOTS HELP GET MORE GIRLS INTO SCIENCE AND TECH?

Wired

WONDER WORKSHOP
By Matt Simon

HERE’S A DEPRESSING number for you: 12. Just 12 percent of engineers in the United States are women. In computing it’s a bit better, where women make up 26 percent of the workforce—but that number has actually fallen from 35 percent in 1990.

The United States has a serious problem with getting women into STEM jobs and keeping them there. Silicon Valley and other employers bear the most responsibility for that: Discrimination, both overt and subtle, works to keep women out of the workforce. But this society of ours also perpetuates gender stereotypes, which parents pass on to their kids. Like the one that says boys enjoy building things more than girls.

There’s no single solution to such a daunting problem, but here’s an unlikely one: robots. Not robots enforcing diversity in the workplace, not robots doing all the work and obviating the concept of gender entirely, but robots getting more girls interested in STEM. Specifically, robot kits for kids—simple yet powerful toys for teaching youngsters how to engineer and code.

VAIDAS SIRTAUTUS

Plenty of toys are targeted at getting kids interested in science and engineering, and many these days are gender specific. Roominate, for instance, is a building kit tailored for girls, while the Boolean Box teaches girls to code. “Sometimes there’s this idea that girls need special Legos, or it needs to be pink and purple for girls to get into it, and sometimes that rubs me the wrong way,” says Amanda Sullivan, who works in human development at Tufts University. “If the pink and purple colored tools is what’s going to engage that girl, then that’s great. But I think in general it would be great if there were more tools and books and things that were out there for all children.”

So Sullivan decided to test the effects of a specifically non-gendered robotics kit called Kibo. Kids program the rolling robot by stringing together blocks that denote specific commands. It isn’t marketed specifically to boys or girls using stereotypical markings of maleness or femaleness. It’s a blank slate.

Before playing with Kibo, boys were significantly more likelyto say they’d enjoy being an engineer than the girls did. But after, boys had about the same opinion, while girls were now equally as likely to express an engineering interest as the boys. (In a control group that did not play with Kibo, girls’ opinions did not significantly change.) “I think that robots in general are novel to young children, both boys and girls,” Sullivan says. “So aside from engaging girls specifically, I think robotics kits like Kibo bring an air of excitement and something new to the classroom that gets kids psyched and excited about learning.”

There’s a problem, though. While Sullivan’s research shows that a gender-neutral robotics kit can get girls interested in engineering, that doesn’t mean it will sell. “If you look at sales data, it clearly shows that they’re not being used by girls,” says Sharmi Albrechtsen, CEO and co-founder of SmartGurlz, which makes a programmable doll on a self-balancing scooter. “Even the ones that are considered gender-neutral, if you look at the sales data it clearly shows a bias, and it’s towards boys. That’s the reality of the situation.” Gender sells—at least when it’s the parents doing the buying.

Regardless, companies are designing a new generation of toys in deliberate ways. Take Wonder Workshop and its non-gendered robots Dash and Cue. As they were prototyping, they’d test their designs with boys and girls. “One of the things we heard a lot from girls was this isn’t quite their toy,” says Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop. “This is probably what their brother would play with.”

Why? Because they thought it looked like a car or truck. So the team covered up the wheels. “And all of a sudden girls wanted to play with it,” Gupta says. “Our takeaway from that in a big way was that every child brings their preconceived notions to play. So when they see something they map it back to something they’ve already seen.” Though not always. “What we do find actually, funnily enough,” says Albrechtsen of the SmartGurlz scooter doll, “is that a lot of boys actually end up edging in and wanting to play. So we have a lot of brothers who are also playing with the product.”

Whatever gets a child interested, it’s on parents and educators to make sure the spark stays alive. And maybe it’s the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly awesome, and increasingly inexpensive robots that can begin to transform the way America gets girls into science and tech. Short of becoming self aware and taking over the world, the machines certainly couldn’t hurt.

Birmingham Covington: Building a Student-Centered School

Edutopia

Here are some fantastic examples of student-centered learning.  Be sure to watch the videos.

 

Educators take on the role of guides and motivate students to direct their own learning.

A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.

These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.

Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.

By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.

“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. “All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes.”

Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project

Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.

In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.

“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”

Teaching Resourcefulness

Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.

Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.

“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.

Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs

Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.

The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.

“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”

Increasing Independence for Older Learners

As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?

In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.

This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.

“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. “Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”

Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

Northeastern president discusses his new book on how higher education can train students for careers where technology cannot make them redundant.

September 12, 2017

In the era of artificial intelligence, robots and more, higher education is arguably more important than ever. Academic researchers are producing the ideas that lead to technology after technology. On the other hand, a challenge exists for higher education: how to produce graduates whose careers won’t be derailed by all of these advances. Now that robots can pick stocks, this isn’t just about factory jobs, but the positions that college graduates have long assumed were theirs.

Northeastern University is involved in both sides of that equation. Its academic programs in engineering, computer science and other fields are producing these breakthroughs. And its students — at an institution known for close ties to employers — of course want good careers. Joseph E. Aoun, Northeastern’s president, explores these issues in Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (MIT Press). Aoun is a scholar in linguistics when he’s not focused on university administration. His book argues that changes in the college curriculum are needed to prepare students in this new era, but that doesn’t mean ignoring the humanities or general education.

Aoun, one of seven presidents honored today by the Carnegie Corporation for academic leadership, responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: How worried should college graduates be about being replaced by technology? Is it likely that many jobs today held by those with college degrees will be replaced by robots or some form of technology?

A: Smart machines are getting smarter, and many of the jobs performed by people today are going to disappear. Some studies predict that half of all U.S. jobs are at risk within the next 20 years. And it’s not just blue-collar jobs; today intelligent machines are picking stocks, doing legal research and even writing news articles. Simply put, if a job can be automated in the future, it will be.

For higher education to meet this challenge — for us to make people robot-proof — we need to change. In my book, I offer a blueprint for how we can accomplish this. We will need to re-envision the curriculum, invest in experiential education and put lifelong learning at the heart of what we do. It will not be easy, but we have a responsibility — to the students of today and tomorrow — to change the way we do business.

Q: In an era of adaptive learning and online learning, should faculty members be worried about their jobs in the future?

A: We’re seeing educational content become commoditized. Therefore, the job of faculty members has to go beyond simply transmitting knowledge. More than ever, the priority for faculty is to create new knowledge and act as the catalysts to make their students robot-proof. The personal connection between student and teacher cannot be replaced by a machine.

But, like students, faculty members must act to meet the challenge of today’s world and should embrace the transformation of higher education that I describe in my book.

Q: What is “humanics,” and what are the three kinds of literacy that you want colleges to teach?

A: Humanics is the curriculum for a robot-proof education. It is based on the purposeful integration of technical literacies, such as coding and data analytics, with uniquely human literacies, such as creativity, entrepreneurship, ethics, cultural agility and the ability to work with others.

The key is integration. We need to break down the academic silos that separate historians from engineers.

When I talk to employers, they tell me that they would give their right arm for more systems thinkers — quarterbacks who can see across disciplines and analyze them in an integrated way. And every student should be culturally agile, able to communicate across boundaries, and to think ethically. By integrating technology, data and humanities, we can help students become robot-proof.

Q: In your vision for the future of higher education, is this about embedding these skills into existing programs or starting from scratch?

A: Higher education has the elements for a robot-proof model, but we need to be much more intentional about how we integrate them. As I’ve mentioned, our curriculum needs to change so that technical and human literacies are unified.

We need to deliver this curriculum in an experiential way. This means recognizing that learning happens beyond the classroom through co-ops and meaningful internships. I truly believe that experiential education is the most powerful way to learn.

Still, no one is going to be set for life. We need to commit to lifelong learning in a way that we haven’t done in the past. Universities have been engaged in lifelong learning for many years, but it is usually treated as a second-class operation. We need to bring lifelong learning to the core of our mission.

This will require us to rethink the way we deliver education, particularly to working professionals who don’t have time to be on campus every day. Online and hybrid delivery modes will be essential. We have to meet learners wherever they are — in their careers and around the world.

Credentials will need to be unbundled so that learners don’t have to commit to long-term degree programs. Stackable certificates, badges and boot camps will become the norm.

These changes won’t happen by themselves. Institutions should establish authentic partnerships with employers, redesign courses to fill gaps that employers actually need and connect them with students through co-ops and internships.

Q: How is Northeastern getting ready for these changes?

A: Northeastern has designed its academic plan to meet the challenges — and opportunities — presented by smart machines. Beyond the curricular changes required by humanics, and our leadership in experiential learning, we are building a multicampus network spanning different cities, regions and countries. Learners will be able to gain access to this network wherever they are and whenever it’s convenient for them.

Throughout its history, higher education has adapted to changes in the world. Knowing what we know about the revolution of smart machines, we have a responsibility to remain relevant and an opportunity to make our learners robot-proof.

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