Monday, September 24, 2012

Can robots play music and become journalists? Apr 2010 
Saturday afternoon, I was shocked to hear my daughter screaming at the laptop.  She's normally a very restrained, 17-year-old, and not easily provoked into shouting matches with computers.  While submitting her college application to Indiana University, the website repeatedly shut down due to server connection issues. Although she was clearly aggravated, I was secretly delighted.

It wasn't for the seemingly obvious reasons like, "I don't want her to go to an out-of-state school" or "I'm not quite ready for my daughter to grow up". It was because she wants to study music at Indiana.  She's an exceptional orchestra musician and plays the violin and viola with staggering proficiency and grace.  She loves music and would excel in any music program, but I would prefer her and the rest of her generation to start turning their attention toward computer science.

According to the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for those in computer systems design will increase over 48 percent between 2008 and 2018. Many other computer science fields expect to increase at high levels as well. Sure it's a growing field, but the world will still need musicians - right?

I'm sure we'll need musicians, actors, writers, and bloggers, but for how much longer.  Andrew McAfee,  a principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management,  has spoken about the increasingly efficient ways that business is replacing traditionally skilled labor positions with digital tools. Basically, robots are taking over the workplace.

The concept of robots in the workplace conjures up images of either the Jetson's robot maid from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon or an adorable Wall-E from the Disney movie of the same name. We still think of automation as hulking, expensive hardware capable of completely narrow tasks under human supervision. But that's not the case.

McAfee talks about the rise of corporate profits and the decrease of employees during the TEDtalks event in Boston recently.  Those companies are still investing in the future by way of hardware and software, just not people.  And they don't need to. He later gives us an example of digital tools replacing a traditionally human role - journalism. Here's an article about this very subject written by a human at the New York Times 

I don't believe this is the slow rode to a Terminator-led apocalypse, but I do agree with McAfee that there will be vast new opportunities to improve the quality of life for billions of people world-wide. It starts with accepting the notion that automation and artificial intelligence will create new opportunities for innovation.  But we're going to need more computer scientists.

At a recent back-to-school night, I sat in on my daughter's computer science class along with the other parents.  I listened to the teacher recite his syllabus and student expectations, but I was struck by a few things he mentioned during his presentation. My daughter's school is one of the few schools in the area with an AP computer science course. I'm sure that's not jaw-dropping, but consider that this public school is in Fairfax County Virginia. This isn't silicon valley, but considering that this area of the country has one of the highest populations of people holding advanced degrees per capita, it's at least note-worthy.

No part of the country is more painfully aware of the ebb and flow of politics and the economy as Washington DC.  Yet the focus of attention is zeroed on job-creation instead of education.  And I'm not talking about teacher's salaries or class-size. In order to meet the demands of the coming technology revolution, our children need to be prepared.

Traditional manufacturing jobs and some general skilled-based occupations (anything involving customer interaction) can and will be replaced with some form of artificial intelligence. The men and women with the expertise to work with large data sets, code complex algorithms, and push the envelope of information technology will be in high demand.

Is it relevant for American high school students to take consecutive years of a foreign language when a Google app on the mobile device can quickly translate multiple languages? Has English class made our young adults entering the workforce any more proficient at writing a resume or crafting grammatically correct emails? These skills are important, but when compared to science and math, I don't think they are vital.

In the meantime, my daughter has agreed to minor in computer science.  She still dreams of continuing her music education and one day becoming a teacher. I'll always support her and encourage her to chase her dreams. But just as I'd like to be a bestselling author even though algorithms are creeping in on the industry, consider this video of a 17-year-old Ray Kurzweil on a 1965 television game show.  Ask yourself, where will you and your children be when the robots are playing at the Kennedy Center and writing their own reviews.

 - Eric McLeroy


  1. "She loves music and would excel in any music program, but I would prefer her and the rest of her generation to start turning their attention toward computer science."

    I think it should be "... I would prefer she, and the rest of her generation, turn their attention toward computer science."
    unless you don't intend for the "and the rest of her generation" portion to be a subordinate clause.

    I think you make some good points here but I would like to see you broaden your research to include some other areas because I think your daughter has the potential to be an even more skillful musician (by the way the violin and cello are my favorite instruments) and improve upon her skill by teaching it. I believe that the state of education is changing, and technology will fuel that change but I think your daughter can develop a successful business teaching those instruments.
    I think you should have spoken with the people who push the Arts agenda (I don't mean that negatively) and take into consideration the value of music study to increased understanding of logic and math. I think as the need for courses in computer science increases, the need for people who understand math will increase and the study of music complements and helps those areas of the brain. Parents will respond to the demand for these math skills by enrolling their children in musical programs. Take into consideration the fiscal cuts in art programs by public schools, and your daughter has a market. She can have a major impact on the computer science industry, do what she loves, and earn money by furthering her musical study. They say you get better by teaching something and I think she could improve her own mastery by focusing on music. Also, consider that students who attend four-year institutes change their major about three or four times on average. College is a time of self-discovery and she will discover her passion during that time. Perhaps she will change her major and focus on computer science. I know you will be proud of her regardless of what she does, but also take into consideration that countries with cheaper labor (India and China) are also putting a lot of time and effort into the sciences and will be able to bid lower for those employment opportunities. I'm not saying your analysis is incorrect but I think you should be careful not to jump on the computer science band wagon too quickly.

  2. Interesting comment. I'd like to point out that even in countries like China, manufacturing is less dependent on employees now that they are taking advantage of digital tools, automation, and artificial intelligence.

    A quick google search for most sought college majors turns up an article from US News:

    According to this article, teachers aren't in demand, and the most sought after major is engineering with a disproportionate amount of students graduating in that discipline.

    I would also suggest that the "time for self discovery" is a cliché that hearkens to the 70's individualism movement. (I wrote about this in my review of regeneration).

    If technology continues growing at the same exponential rate (according to Moore's law it will), we will witness the expiration of thousands of careers. Children will be freed from the exhausted teachers that have clung to their jobs well past the point of proficiency. Air travel, trucking, and all transportation will be safer once we remove human error from the equation. (google autonomous cars have proven safer than humans).

    But I do agree, listening to and playing music is worthwhile.