I like to confuse people. Being enigmatic is my modus operandi of choice. Being the worst-dressed traveler in the Koru Lounge is a given for me, as is being the most under-qualified individual around pretty much every board table I serve at. While it would be supremely self-important to suggest that I embody Winston Churchill’s famous quote of a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma suffice it to say that I’m a bit of a contradiction in terms.

This is particularly the case in the technology realm. For the last 15 years or so, I’ve spent my life flying all around the world talking to various people about generally emergent and sometimes arcane technology approaches. Along with a small group of colleagues I was talking about “The Cloud” at international conferences back when no one knew what it was. (A humorous aside – a local politician, well-known for his political feats as well as curtailing airport security on occasion, upon hearing that I was involved in cloud computing asked me whether I worked for the Met Service or NIWA. But I digress).

Around a decade or so ago I was invited to attend an unconference (don’t worry, the vast majority of readers haven’t heard the term either – think of it as a conference that is free-form and attendee driven). At said event I quickly engaged in an argument with one of the facilitators. At this stage, my sons were at primary school and attending an alternative primary school where they were busy learning to draw, plant veggies and knit socks.

I regaled my fellow conference attendees with the pride I felt that the socks I was wearing at that event were in-fact crafted by my eldest son and gifted to me. “This,” I stated with breathless keenness “is what we need more of. Children who can use not only their heads but their hands. Children who are connected with doing as well as thinking.”

Naively I assumed that others would be excited by my sartorial example and concur with my pedagogical one. Alas nothing could be further form the truth. The aforementioned facilitator was very bleak in his assessment telling me that skills such as knitting socks (or, for that matter, the other things my kids were learning) had no place in the modern world. A world that would be ruled by technology. Instead, he opined with a side serving of smugness, we should be teaching kids programming and database design and architecture (of the computing rather than the built environment style.)

I was thinking about what that chap said the other day when reading a thought piece from a colleague in the US. The essence of what he wrote, was that Artificial Intelligence is now doing to other areas what scale has previously done to the costs of computer storage and processing. Namely – we’re going to see, in the next few years, a massive decrease in what it costs to create software. Specifically, AI tools will ingest a gazillion examples of well-written software and “learn” to code far more quickly and accurately than any human being can. AI will do to programming what knitting machines did to sock making. Except for the fact that there is still a place for a hand-made, artisanal sock (or a pair, even!) whereas no one really cares whether their favorite phone app was made by (wo)man or machine

My old mate Roger Dennis, himself a noted futurist that spends his days thinking and talking about what the future might bring, had this to say when reflecting on the predicted costs of programming into the future:

For the last decade, many adults have been encouraging students to learn to programme. Most programmers believed that if their kids could also work with computers, they too would have well-paid jobs.

However, my response was always a firm ‘no’ to this idea. My logic was that computers would eventually write code better than people, and by the time young students graduated, their skills would be redundant. Now, ten years later, and thanks to newly released AI tools…

The unwritten punchline being that it’s a mugs game to spend years at university learning to programme only to have a machine do what you’d sweated to learn faster, cheaper and better.

It seems to me that what our kids need for a dynamic future is not specific functional skills, but rather the ability to think, create, problem solve and stay attentive. All things, I might add, that my sons gained from their hippie educations. Socks and all. The technology industry might be the holy grail. We might all be enamored with the sort of tech jobs that have been paying huge salaries over the past few years. But it’d be unwise to think that those specific roles are going to be a perennial gravy train.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
  • Learning to understand why what you are doing makes the shape that it does is a knitting skill. (Knit 1, purl 1 (single rib)) repeat to end, repeat on the next row; is the simplest of algorithms, and comparing the result to (knit a row, purl a row) repeat on the next two rows; is informative. Knitting socks requires more complexity, to increase, turn a heel, and decrease. Great preparation for learning how to take advantage of the computer’s ability to repeat and recurse.

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