A responsible education policy encourages students to study the courses that are better for them and better for society as a whole. It has become conventional wisdom that the subjects that meet this criterion are the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is these subjects that deserve extra investment, and towards which students should be guided. This view may be fundamentally wrong.
The global labour market is about to undergo a profound transformation resulting from the development of robotics and artificial intelligence. According to a recent study by Michael Osborne and Carl Frey of the University of Oxford, almost half of all jobs are vulnerable to replacement by machines able to perform tasks cheaper and more effectively than humans.
The economic value inherent in these jobs, and the skills they require, is about to collapse.
But the risk of machines replacing humans is not spread evenly across the labour and skills market. Industrial robots are very good at performing tasks that are repetitive and capable of being broken into smaller sub-tasks.
Artificial intelligence is extremely good at gathering information and performing complex tasks involving technical analysis and judgement. It is this feature that sets the robot revolution apart from earlier phases of mechanisation. While the industrial revolution threatened the jobs of unskilled labourers and artisans, the robot and AI revolution threatens to consume skilled jobs, as well as great swathes of the professions such as medicine and law.
It is here that the STEM-first strategy looks foolhardy. While STEM subjects will be at the forefront of developing robotic and AI technology, the quantitative, analytical, and technical skills they teach to students are precisely those most vulnerable to computerisation. The student who prepares for the coming of robots by learning how to code, may find that the robots can code much better than any human, and that those hard-won technical skills rapidly depreciate in value.
But certain skills look relatively immune to the march of the robots. These are the uniquely human skills required to lead, to inspire, to communicate, and to form interpersonal connections based on meaning, emotional engagement and trust. It is very hard for machines (at least for the foreseeable future) to replicate these forms of interaction and it is likely that these skills will retain and enhance their economic value.
There are subjects that teach and develop these skills and have done so for centuries. In contrast to the STEM subjects we might call these the HEART subjects: humanities, english and the arts. These subjects are fundamentally about meaning. They teach how to construct compelling narratives, how to persuade (and resist persuasion), how to assess, articulate, and cultivate values, and how to develop and critique arguments. Just as the industrial revolution generated a flight in value from the skills of the 'hand' to the skills of the 'mind', the robot revolution will trigger a flight from the quantitative and technical skills of mind to those of feeling, imagining and creating. As these 'human-only' skills increasingly command a premium, and it is my bet that the economic return to individuals from the study of HEART subjects will outstrip those from STEM studies over the next fifty years.
Of course the value of the humanities cannot be reduced to their instrumental or economic value. But neither should the likely trajectory of their economic value be ignored. The Osborne and Frey study puts the likelihood of higher education professors being replaced by machines at 3 percent. The likelihood of welders being replaced is 78 percent. In the future we will need more philosophers and fewer welders.