Education for today

Last week I visited Amazon Go, a new advanced shopping stored without any cashier. I walked into the store, took a few items: Two books and a sandwich, and walked out. Everything I bought will be billed to my Amazon account. The store technology consists of sensors, camera, and artificial intelligence software are similar to what being used in self-driving cars and automated factories. The store sensors detect what I have selected, the camera identifies me as the customer, and check my mobile phone for the Amazone Go application that I have installed a few days ago. The shopping was fast and convenient but it was quite an “interesting experience” because there was no cashier for me to pay. During the short time there, I only saw a few customers like me who bought something then walked out. Soon this type of store will be available all over the U.S. and eventually all over the world. I thought of all the people who work as cashier and support in stores, large and small, and wonder do they know about this? And what will happen to them when technology is taking over their livelihood?

Last year, I visited an fully automated factory in Germany where robots are making shoes and sporting clothes without a single person on the factory floor. Everything was controlled by computers with artificial intelligence software. The manager there told me that within a year or so, they will build more factories like that all over the world but they do not need workers because technology is getting better and smarter. He explained: “It is the cost of labor that keep the prices high, by invest in automation we can increase profit and in the future automation will be the key factor in all manufacturing.” I thought of all the people who work as labor workers in shoes and clothing factories in developing countries, and wonder do they know about this? And what will happen to them when technology is taking over their livelihood?

There were many self-driving cars being tested on the street of Pittsburgh and other big cities today. Last year, I rode on one self-driving car that took me from Carnegie Mellon to the Airport during traffic hours with hundreds of cars running on the freeway. it was quite a scary experience for me, but everything was fine and no accident. The manager of a self-driving car company told me that within a few years this technology will completely disrupt the entire transportation industry. There will be no need for drivers. I thought of all the people who work as taxi and truck drivers in developing countries, and wonder do they know about this? And what will happen to them when technology is taking over their livelihood?

Even for someone like me, who spent many years in the technology industry and teach courses in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics at university, I am still surprised about the speed of technological changes. I think about all the people, not just labor workers, but also office workers that these technologies will impact and wonder what will happen in the next ten years, or twenty years. I know that most people are busy to make a living and may not pay attention to these changes. They may not understand how technology will impact their jobs, their future, and their children’s future. Even if they know, they feel helpless because there is nothing they can do about it. But somebody should.

Last year, I gave a presentation at an education conference in Malaysia about the need to improve the education system. I concluded: “Soon every job will require a certain knowledge of technology. There is an urgent need to change the education system, from elementary to high school, and college to focus on producing more technically skilled workers. Every country also needs to retrain their workers for the change in their jobs and technical education should be the top priority.” After my talk, Dr. Poonam, another speaker at the conference who conducted studies about youth employment in her country India. She said: “Currently only less than 17% of India’s college graduates are employable. India will need to educate about 100 million young people over the next ten years, a challenge never before undertaken in India ‘s history. At least 1,000 universities will need to be built over this period and 117 million people need to be trained in technical skills so they can work in more productive jobs. Without it, India will never be able to catch-up with other countries.”

After our presentations, we were asked to participate in a panel discussion consist of five educators. All five of us agree to declare that: “Education is the most fundamental foundation for being a person. It is the foundation of a country and the world. Education is also the best national defense. If you do not do a good job in education, your national defense will fail.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University