Skip to main content

Cognitive Robotics, Literacy, and Unemployment


Cognitive Robotics, Literacy, and Unemployment

Tom Sticht                                                                                                                                                                                                           International Consultant in Adult Education

In 1985, I presented a paper at an international conference on The Future of Literacy in a Changing World. My paper was entitled Literacy, Cognitive Robotics, and General Technology Training for Marginally Literate Adults. In the paper I discussed the topic of Robot and Human Resources Development as a research project colleagues and I were working on. I stated that: “At the present time, colleagues and I are involved in research projects which may lead to both the development of technology for replacing humans in the performance of various literacy and other cognitive tasks, and to new approaches for developing literacy and technological knowledge of marginally literate youth and adults so they may “deal with and administer” the new technologies.”

I went on then to state: “In this research, we are beginning to explore the development of robots which will perform jobs comprised of literacy and cognitive tasks that previously were performed by human resources. For these types of jobs, then, one may in the future have to determine if investment in robot resources development is more cost-beneficial than investment in human resources development to acquire the needed levels of productivity from the work force, when the latter is comprised of people and robots.” I went on to note that “The capability is emerging, therefore, for the development of “cognitive robots” having the potential for replacing many of the most highly literate workers of the “information age”.

Now, almost 30 years later, Paul Beaudry, economist at the University of British Columbia, and colleagues have produced a 2013 report published by the National Center for Economic Research (NBER) entitled “The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks”. In this report  they point to the growing difficulty recent college graduates are having finding jobs for which their degrees have prepared them. They note that almost half of the graduates are working in jobs for which they are overqualified, a third of which do not require any education beyond a high school diploma.

As it turns out, Beaudry and colleagues are pointing to the effects on employability of robotizing many so-called “higher order” cognitive skills much as I discussed in my 1985 paper. As a part of the explanation for why so many college graduates are finding it difficult to find high skilled jobs matching their college preparation, Beaudry told newspaper reporters, that “…the reason there used to be so many good jobs is that good people were needed to develop, build, and install high-tech systems. But now that those are in place, robots and computers are automating more jobs than ever... Once the robots are in place you still need some people, but you need a lot less than when you were putting in the robots. …So, he says the unemployment rate won’t really go down until we reach the point where we need to develop a new wave of even more technologically advanced robots.”

The latter touches on the second aspect of my 1985 paper in which I discussed curriculum development methods for integrating literacy and technical training that will simultaneously increase a person’s basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, while developing their technological knowledge so that they can find work in higher skilled trades and technologies. I noted that “A difficulty with the great majority of literacy and technical, vocational training programs is that they view literacy and technological knowledge acquisition as two different things. Literacy is something one must first get and then apply to the learning of job technical skills.  But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Today, both the U. S. Department of Education and the U. S. Department of Labor are sponsoring R & D projects to integrate the teaching of basic skills and career-related, vocational education. There is now the question as to whether or not the Functional Context Education approach, as the integrated basic skills and technical skills training curriculum development method was subsequently named, can proceed ahead at a speed which will outpace the de-skilling of technical jobs by cognitive robots.

At the present time, the report by Beaudry and colleagues suggests that we are losing this contest, and tens of thousands of college graduates are moving down the occupational ladder and displacing less literate workers into unskilled, poorly paying jobs or out of the labor force altogether.