How to Prepare for an Automated Future

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Sebastian Thrun, left, the co-founder of Udacity, which provides online courses, recording for a programming class with Andy Brown, a course manager. Experts say online courses will be essential for workers to remain qualified as more tasks become automated. CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times

We don’t know how quickly machines will displace people’s jobs, or how many they’ll take, but we know it’s happening — not just to factory workers but also to money managers, dermatologists and retail workers.

The logical response seems to be to educate people differently, so they’re prepared to work alongside the robots or do the jobs that machines can’t. But how to do that, and whether training can outpace automation, are open questions.

Pew Research Center and Elon University surveyed 1,408 people who work in technology and education to find out if they think new schooling will emerge in the next decade to successfully train workers for the future. Two-thirds said yes; the rest said no. Following are questions about what’s next for workers, and answers based on the survey responses.

How do we educate people for an automated world?

People still need to learn skills, the respondents said, but they will do that continuously over their careers. In school, the most important thing they can learn is how to learn.

At universities, “people learn how to approach new things, ask questions and find answers, deal with new situations,” wrote Uta Russmann, a professor of communications at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. “All this is needed to adjust to ongoing changes in work life. Special skills for a particular job will be learned on the job.”

Schools will also need to teach traits that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. The problem, many respondents said, is that these are not necessarily easy to teach.

“Many of the ‘skills’ that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold,” wrote Stowe Boyd, managing director of Another Voice, which provides research on the new economy.

Can we change education fast enough to outpace the machines?

About two-thirds of the respondents thought it could be done in the next decade; the rest thought that education reform takes too much time, money and political will, and that automation is moving too quickly.

“I have complete faith in the ability to identify job gaps and develop educational tools to address those gaps,” wrote Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data and Society, a research institute. “I have zero confidence in us having the political will to address the socioeconomic factors that are underpinning skill training.”

Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner, wrote, “Barring a neuroscience advance that enables us to embed knowledge and skills directly into brain tissue and muscle formation, there will be no quantum leap in our ability to ‘up-skill’ people.”

Will college degrees still be important?

College is more valuable than ever, research shows. The jobs that are still relatively safe from automation require higher education, as well as interpersonal skills fostered by living with other students.

“Human bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence,” said Frank Elavsky, data and policy analyst at Acumen, a policy research firm.

But many survey respondents said a degree was not enough — or not always the best choice, especially given its price tag. Many of them expect more emphasis on certificates or badges, earned from online courses or workshops, even for college graduates.

One potential future, said David Karger, a professor of computer science at M.I.T., would be for faculty at top universities to teach online and for mid-tier universities to “consist entirely of a cadre of teaching assistants who provide support for the students.”

Employers will also place more value on on-the-job learning, many respondents said, such as apprenticeships or on-demand trainings at workplaces. Portfolios of work are becoming more important than résumés.

“Résumés simply are too two-dimensional to properly communicate someone’s skill set,” wrote Meryl Krieger, a career specialist at Indiana University. “Three-dimensional materials — in essence, job reels that demonstrate expertise — will be the ultimate demonstration of an individual worker’s skills.”

What can workers do now to prepare?

Consider it part of your job description to keep learning, many respondents said — learn new skills on the job, take classes, teach yourself new things.

Focus on learning how to do tasks that still need humans, said Judith Donath of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society: teaching and caregiving; building and repairing; and researching and evaluating.

The problem is that not everyone is cut out for independent learning, which takes a lot of drive and discipline. People who are suited for it tend to come from privileged backgrounds, with a good education and supportive parents, said Beth Corzo-Duchardt, a media historian at Muhlenberg College. “The fact that a high degree of self-direction may be required in the new work force means that existing structures of inequality will be replicated in the future,” she said.

Even if we do all these things, will there be enough jobs?

Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said he was optimistic about the future of work as long as people learned technological skills: “People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central.”

But the third of respondents who were pessimistic about the future of education reform said it won’t matter if there are no jobs to train for.

“The ‘jobs of the future’ are likely to be performed by robots,” said Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at Mimecast, an email company. “The question isn’t how to train people for nonexistent jobs. It’s how to share the wealth in a world where we don’t need most people to work.”

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How Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Can Discourage Girls From Math and Science

We know that women are underrepresented in math and science jobs. What we don’t know is why it happens.

There are various theories, and many of them focus on childhood. Parents and toy-makers discourage girls from studying math and science. So do their teachers. Girls lack role models in those fields, and grow up believing they wouldn’t do well in them.

All these factors surely play some role. A new study points to the influence of teachers’ unconscious biases, but it also highlights how powerful a little encouragement can be. Early educational experiences have a quantifiable effect on the math and science courses the students choose later, and eventually the jobs they get and the wages they earn.

The effect is larger for children from families in which the father is more educated than the mother and for girls from lower-income families, according to the study, published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The pipeline for women to enter math and science occupations narrows at many points between kindergarten and a career choice, but elementary school seems to be a critical juncture. Reversing bias among teachers could increase the number of women who enter fields like computer science and engineering, which are some of the fastest growing and highest paying.

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A new study points to the influential role played by teachers’ unconscious biases, but it also highlights how powerful a little encouragement can be for children.CreditErik S. Lesser for The New York Times

“It goes a long way to showing it’s not the students or the home, but the classroom teacher’s behavior that explains part of the differences over time between boys and girls,” said Victor Lavy, an economist at University of Warwick in England and a co-author of the paper.

Previous studies have found that college professors and employers discriminate against female scientists. But it is not surprising that it begins even earlier.

In computer science in the United States, for instance, just 18.5 percent of the high school students who take the Advanced Placement exam are girls. In college, women earn only 12 percent of computer science degrees.

That is one reason that tech companies say they have hired so few women. Last year, Google, Apple and Facebook, among others, revealed that fewer than a fifth of technical employees are women.

“The most surprising and I think important finding in the paper is that a biasing teacher affects the work choices students make and whether to study math and science years later,” said Mr. Lavy, who conducted the study with Edith Sand of Tel Aviv University.

Beginning in 2002, the researchers studied three groups of Israeli students from sixth grade through the end of high school. The students were given two exams, one graded by outsiders who did not know their identities and another by teachers who knew their names.

In math, the girls outscored the boys in the exam graded anonymously, but the boys outscored the girls when graded by teachers who knew their names. The effect was not the same for tests on other subjects, like English and Hebrew. The researchers concluded that in math and science, the teachers overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated the girls’, and that this had long-term effects on students’ attitudes toward the subjects.

For example, when the same students reached junior high and high school, the economists analyzed their performance on national exams. The boys who had been encouraged when they were younger performed significantly better.

They also tracked the advanced math and science courses that students chose to take in high school. After controlling for other factors that might affect their choices, they concluded that the girls who had been discouraged by their elementary schoolteachers were much less likely than the boys to take advanced courses.

Although the study took place in Israel, Mr. Lavy said that similar research had been conducted in several European countries and that he expected the results were applicable in the United States. The researchers also found that discouragement from teachers in math or science wound up lowering students’ confidence in other subjects at school, showing again the potential importance of nods of encouragement.