Opinion contributor | April 11, 2019
Technology has created a strange new world. Cats playing piano can now get more attention than political leaders — perhaps deservedly. Artificial intelligence can now generate chillingly compelling “fake news.” Police are having trouble pulling over Teslas whose drivers are sleeping.
But these effects are small compared with what I believe are the central questions of our time: Will all this accelerating technology — which will generate incredible productivity and wealth — also cause labor wages to stagnate, exacerbate wealth inequality and eliminate millions of jobs? Most chillingly, will it, in the process, destabilize our society and democracy? Or can we leverage technology to amplify human purpose and potential?
There is real cause for concern. By many measures, wealth inequality is approaching a 100-year high. And even though the unemployment rate is quite low, wages have stagnated and labor force participation rates have declined for the past two decades. These trends — likely due more to globalization and capital-friendly tax policy than technology — are happening before the really profound technology-driven changes hit. Roughly 5 million Americans drive a vehicle for a living; 3.6 million are cashiers. It is very, very likely that most of their jobs, and many others, will be automated in the next 10 to 20 years.
Economic optimists point to the past 300 years as a reason not to be worried. The advances of the industrial revolution automated jobs for everyone from weavers to horses, but it also created many good jobs in management, manufacturing and engineering (at least for humans). And the wealth that automation created reached a broad swath of the population, which helped spawn the middle-class-driven consumer economy we have today. Net-net, history seems to suggest that while technology does cause temporary disruptions to some, in the long run it leads to more wealth and employment for most.
However, this line of thinking ignores a massive societal bet we made concurrently with the technological disruption of the 18th and 19th centuries: free, mass public education.
Literacy is no longer for the ruling class
For most of human history, the ability to read and compute were elite skills reserved for a subset of the ruling class. The early American colonies were more literate than most of Europe — about 60% of white men had a base level of literacy. The numbers for women were about half that. African-American slaves, for the most part, were intentionally kept illiterate through most of the 19th century.
It was obvious to our nation’s Founders that a people would succumb to tyranny if the population couldn’t read. In pre-Revolution Virginia, Thomas Jefferson proposed a bill for public schooling based on the argument that:
Those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people of large.
The American colonies did end up making just the type of investment that Jefferson recommended. By the mid-19th century, universal public education for white males helped raise literacy rates to near100%. And in the 20th century, public schooling brought women and minorities to near 100% literacy as well. This was a large bet growing from 1% of gross domestic product to 5.7% of GDP across the century. Today education spending is almost 4% of GDP, which amounts to about $600 billion annually in the United States.
Imagine if our country didn’t make the type of investment in education that Jefferson proposed. Where would the skilled labor have come from for the new, middle-class Industrial Revolution jobs? Would the United States have still emerged as a world power? Would our democracy have survived the dislocations that technology inevitably introduces? I believe that the answers to all of the above are at best a weak “maybe.”
Technology literacy is necessary now
As we navigate this next technology-driven inflection point, “maybe” is not acceptable. We need another big bet on education. Free mass public education empowered nearly everyone with the historically scarce skills of reading and numeracy. But in an economy defined by artificial intelligence and robotics, people will need much more than literacy and numeracy.
Teachers have always known that meeting the individual needs of each student accelerates learning, but this was very hard to do in practice — until now. It’s time to empower our educators and learners with the same advances that are changing the rest of the society to develop generations of creative, entrepreneurial, adaptable citizens and leaders armed with the mastery of writing, math, science and computing.
Government may play a role, but it will be too slow on its own to up-level the population fast enough. It is crucial that others step in. Nonprofits with effective, scalable solutions are especially important because education is a sector where unfettered markets have historically ignored many of the students who are most in need. And because of the productivity and scale that technology is providing us, this could be done with far, far fewer resources than even an incremental 0.1% of GDP.
If we can muster the energy, we will see perhaps the strangest and most beautiful byproduct of technology of all: Millions of Americans, unshackled by automation from repetitive and mind-numbing labor, empowered with the skills to participate in what will be the most exciting century in our species’ history.
Sal Khan is the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere. Khan will be discussing the ideas here and many more as part of the 2019 Reagan Institute Summit on Education on Thursday. Follow him on Twitter: @salkhanacademy