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Better, Worse, Metaverse?

We have nearly finished what we need to consider from David Goodhart’s ‘Head Hand Heart’, with just this week and then one more needed to tick off everything I wanted to tell you.  I appreciate that some people will have given up along the way, throwing up their arms in exasperation that I am still banging on about the same book.  So be it, but I stand by my claim that this stuff is genuinely interesting and needs due consideration for anyone who is involved with education.

For example, Goodhart recounts a meeting with Andy Haldane, who worked at the Bank of England for over thirty years, latterly as their Chief Economist, and who therefore seems well placed to comment on the future of work.  Haldane describes how, during the first three industrial revolutions, the skills that workers needed to keep one step ahead of the machines were largely cognitive.  So institutions emerged to nurture thinking skills in children and young adults to increase the chances of successful transition to the cognitively-intensive future world of work – hence the drives for extensive primary, then secondary, then higher education.

The so-called fourth industrial revolution, meaning robots and artificial intelligence, will be different because, Haldane believes, humans will no longer have the cognitive playing field to themselves, with thinking and other non-routine tasks increasingly being taken over by machines.  They will be able to process more quickly, more cheaply and with fewer errors than their human counterparts, at least in some activities.

Two big shifts in working life are imminent.  The first is a demographic one, with someone born today being increasingly expected to live for a hundred years.  This will mean multiple changes of careers, not just jobs, are likely during a lifetime.  The second shift is in the demand for skills.  In the past, this skill-shift has been all one way.  Demand for skills of the Head have dominated demand for skills of the Hand and, to lesser extent of the Heart, but this may be about to go into reverse.

Haldane explains what he sees as the future role for humans: ‘My guess is that there are three areas where humans will preserve some comparative advantage over robots for the foreseeable future.  The first is cognitive tasks requiring creativity and intuition.  These might be tasks or problems whose solutions require greater logical leaps of imagination rather than step-by-step hill-climbing.  Even in a world of super-intelligent machine learning, there will still be a demand for people with the skills to programme, test and oversee these machines.  Some human judgemental overlay of these automated processes is still likely to be needed.’

The second area of prospective demand for human skills, says Haldane, is bespoke design and manufacture.  Routine technical tasks are relatively simple to automate and are already well on their way to disappearing.  But the same is not true of non-routine technical tasks – for example, the creation of goods and services that are distinctive in their design, manufacture or delivery.  A rise in global income is likely to create an increasing demand for luxury goods and services of this type, whose characteristics are unique and supply constrained.  Indeed, this can be seen already in the rising demand and price of rare art and artefacts, and independently produced foodstuffs and beverages, which may well lead to a new artisan class.

The third, and perhaps the biggest, potential growth area, argues Haldane, is social skills – Heart jobs that involve tasks requiring emotional intelligence like sympathy and empathy, relationship building and negotiation skills, resilience and character, rather than cognitive intelligence alone.  These are skills robots are likely to find it hard to replicate.  And even if they could replicate them, humans might still prefer humans to carry them out.

The future could therefore see a world of work in which EQ rivals IQ for supremacy, he continues.  Professions involving high degrees of personal and social interaction – such as health, caring, leisure and education – will see demand rise.  Indeed, it is possible that the balance between cognitive and social skills might alter significantly even in jobs which traditionally have been cognitively intense.  For example, the doctors of the future might be valued less for their clinical competence in diagnosing illness and prescribing solutions, and more for their ability to guide patients through difficult interventions.  

In a world of individual medical records and data-hungry diagnostic algorithms, much of the process of diagnosis and prescription might fall to a machine rather than a human.  But that is unlikely by itself to eradicate the need for doctors.  Patients will still want to discuss their conditions, and they will want advice to be delivered personally and empathetically.  In surveys of patient satisfaction, it is a doctor's bedside manner, rather than clinical competence, that matters most.  In future, that balance between social and clinical skills may shift further.  And, most likely, those social skills will be demanded from flesh and blood rather than robot doctors.

Machines have not been very successful at acquiring social intelligence, emotional intelligence, creativity, innovativeness or the ability to deal with unknown situations.  Experts estimate it will take something like fifty years for AI to attain top-level human performance in social skills that are useful in the workplace.  The sheltered sectors of the future will be those where people actually have to be together doing things, for which humanity has an edge.  This will mean that our work lives will be filled with far more caring, sharing, understanding, creating, empathising, innovating and managing people who are actually in the same room.

This reminded me of another book I read last year, ‘Virtual Society’ by Herman Narula, though I confess I am not entirely sure that I am any the wiser as a result.  It purports to offer a vision for what the future might hold when the internet has been surpassed by a metaverse.  However, despite the author circling back (and forwards and back and forwards) several times, I am still not entirely clear what a metaverse will look like, who will run it, who will benefit from it and when, if ever, it will actually happen.

In the opening chapter, the author seemed to be claiming that the building of the pyramids in Ancient Egypt was the first example of a metaverse, suggesting that the people who built them were happy to be distracted from their otherwise miserable lives by being part of a greater whole.  I suppose there might be some truth in this, but the only people who seem to have benefited from it, as always, were the mega-rich and powerful who could afford to commission the buildings in the first place, and who stood to gain most if it turned out there was an afterlife after all.

Later, if I understood him correctly, the author claimed that being burgled in a virtual world would feel the same as being burgled in real life, which I find hard to believe.  Perhaps those who have lost millions gambling on cryptocurrencies might feel like that, but I find it hard to sympathise with people who are prepared to take such risks in the first place.  If I leave my car with the keys in the ignition, or my front door unlocked and open, I would not expect much sympathy or an insurance pay-out.

It all seemed a bit naïve to me, with Narula arguing that the internet has been captured by a handful of big companies who are making shedloads of money at everyone else’s expense, and which is a place that brings out the worst in our species for nastiness and vitriol.  Apparently, however, the metaverse will be run by the people for the people, even if no one can actually say what it will be yet.  Everyone, we are told, will all of a sudden revert from base unpleasantness to working in one super-cooperative until we all live in peace and harmony.  This all seems highly unlikely, given the entire history of our species, and in the end my main concerns focused on what we would actually do with all this new power and, more practically, how we would find the food and water we actually need to live.

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