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October 9, 2013

Learn to Succeed in the Machine Age

Posted by Mohit Joshi (View Profile | View All Posts) at 8:12 AM

TEDxDirigo - Paul Josephson - Why We All Need to Be Neo-Luddites [Source:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsKHaCIwyaY]

Think back to how the garment workers of early 19th-century England must have felt. Technological advances and the mechanization of textile looms were making their centuries-old jobs pretty much obsolete.

The garment workers were frightened that the onset of even more mechanized looms would leave them unemployed. Led by a young worker named Ned Ludd, the rebellion of garment workers - or "Luddites" - included smashing the mechanical looms in hopes that their human skills would continue to be of value to the owners of the country's wool mills.

A funny thing, the march of progress is. Despite the best attempts of Luddites to put a wrench in the mechanized looms, those factories did indeed modernize. Although their fear was that they would be out of work, the people in England's industrial trades experienced a century of economic expansion and industrial growth. It seems the age of the machine helped create more jobs that were of a higher quality as well.

For some of us, it's easy to associate with the Luddites. We live in an age in which computing platforms are becoming more powerful and easier to carry by the day. We hear of great strides made in the field of Artificial Intelligence. In our capital markets, financiers trade stocks using algorithms that would astound a floor trader even a generation ago. Some of the algorithms are so effective and the computers that execute the trades so powerful that some traders says they're in danger of not finding any arbitrage opportunities in the markets anymore.

Consider, too, that most people in the world have access to some kind of electronic communications device that allows them to manage their money, their businesses, and their personal lives. Many facets of the modern enterprise have become automated to the point that some of us wonder if our human skills and services will be needed even a decade from now.

I suggest that we not get sucked into the mental trap of the Luddites, however. For instance, an economist makes a startling comparison between two types of aircraft - a manned F-16 fighter jet and an unmanned drone. The manned aircraft requires at least one person in the cockpit and a team of some 100 people on the ground every time the jet takes off. The unmanned drone, however, requires 168 humans to keep it aloft. Much like the concerns of the 19th century mill workers in England, concerns about mechanization are often unfounded. What technology does, on the other hand, is to expand old markets and create new ones.

No where is this concept more apparent than in the field of education. Up until now, access to a top university was a rarified thing. Not only would a teenager need to have the academic skills to be accepted, but then he or she would have to come from a family with enough money to pay for tuition and board. At some Western colleges these costs can top $60,000 a year. But with the globalization of the workforce, we're seeing two phenomena. The first is that students from other countries where the higher education system isn't nearly as expensive are applying to the same sorts of high-end jobs in Western markets. That calls into question the exorbitant fees that the Western schools feel justified in charging.

Second, a quality education has become far more accessible. Young people of any means can study at online universities at fairly economical rates. Economists says that in the workplace of the future, employers will care less about where a prospective employee went to school and more about what she learned there. It's the skill set, not the alma mater, that will matter more.

And why shouldn't it? Business leaders want translatable and actionable skills to keep their companies nimble in the digital age. If there's one thing the rise of the machine has taught us, it's that technology is an equalizer of sorts. It gives everyone a level playing field so that the very smartest and most ambitious people come to the forefront. As business leaders, those are the people we want to join our organizations.

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