A father’s concern — mania? — for a daughter’s welfare knows no bounds. Not long after I was hired by Communitech, I attended a Waterloo screening of the film Debugging the Gender Gap with my (then) 10-year-old daughter. I wanted her to see the film, wanted to get her thinking about career options in tech, to get a feel for the ecosystem and about the direction the broader society she lives in is leaning — particularly the one represented in Waterloo Region.
It seemed an easy play. Like all kids her age, she’s wedded to her iPod, references YouTube when she wants to learn how to do, well, everything, and is attracted to every cool piece of tech she sees.
She thought the film was merely “okay.” She thought it was a pretty good movie as movies go, but it was clear that it hadn’t really sparked any latent interest in coding. Undaunted, I downloaded a learn-to-code app for kids that the movie had referenced. She humoured me and played with it for a bit, and so did her younger sister, but within a few days they were bored and on to other things.
Ugh, I thought.
My daughter has a white-hot creative streak. Not surprising, given her mother is a novelist and grandmother a visual artist. She can draw, my daughter, at a level well beyond her years, and spends untold hours creating, at writing stories, making her own “books,” and engaging in remarkably creative play.
My fear? My fear was that her strong creative interests were going to smother any interest in tech, cripple her ability to earn a living in a world where digital literacy seems ever-more nut-n-bolt.
My fear was she wouldn’t get enough of a STEM base in public school to give her the tools to hold her own in the increasingly technological world she inhabits — that she wouldn’t recognize early enough the tectonic shifts going on beneath her in the workforce, the way our society is shifting to bots, algorithms, machines.
Then I started to stumble on stories like one that appeared a couple months ago in Maclean’s, which posited that in fact it was the creative fields that were most inoculated from the algorithm-driven world in which we now live. That the algorithms would one day be written by algorithms, that coding will be just another job surrendered to the bots and hence one without a lot of future.
The creative fields, on the other hand, it argued, were the ones where real security lay:
“… we need a work force to take on jobs that computers can’t: to think laterally, to make subjective judgment calls an algorithm can’t, and to solve problems. Not game programmers, but game animators; not payroll clerks, but career counsellors.
“The great irony of the robotic revolution may be the unexpected resurgence of the long-derided bachelors of arts degree — you still can’t automate creativity.”
I read that and I relaxed. She’ll be fine, I thought.
But with every passing week, with every new startup, and with every tech CEO I speak with, the more I think that’s not quite right, either. That it’s not coding or creativity, exclusively, that will preserve my daughter relevance in the world she inhabits. Both will help, no question.
But rather, it’s nimbleness. Flexibility. Elasticity of mind. The ability to morph. Shape shift. Blend. To be versatile, and able to react quickly and smartly to the circumstances of her day.
“I think it’s so hard to know what the world will look like 20 years from now, let alone 40,” says Jordan Jacobs, co-founder and co-CEO of Toronto-based machine learning firm Layer6 AI. Layer6 produces a software-as-a-service platform that utilizes machine learning to generate personalized search and data recommendations.
“I think a good mix of STEM and creativity will help, but ultimately I think the most important thing might be adaptability. Because I think the world could be changing very quickly at that point. The ability to roll with changes is going to be so crucial [and] no school is going to teach it, so it’s up to parents.
“And I’d say our generation generally is not doing much to help the cause of our kids to be adaptable.”
My bet is that Jacobs, whose own career has shifted from lawyer, to TV producer, to media company founder, to tech CEO, is on to something — that it’s impossible to determine a needed skill set for a work landscape that is constantly being redrawn. Look no farther than the historical rear-view mirror and it’s clear there’s an exponential quality to the changes the world is undergoing. Advances that seemed impossible are now of the everyday. There’s no particular reason why a machine might not ultimately be taught how to think creatively. Or laterally. Learn to intuit. Make judgment calls. Be empathetic.
So. I’m going to learn to calm down and stop worrying quite so much about my daughter’s future and learn to live with the uncertainty. I don’t think it’s possible to really know what she should arm herself with — for a battle with a world that’s still, for her, 10 years away — other than a willingness and a capability to be nimble, elastic, receptive and responsive.
As for her father’s overall mania? Well, maybe one day there’ll be an app for that.