18 October 2011

Automated Academics

This WSJ piece on the US income gains over the past decade (summary: unless you have a PhD or MD, you didn't have any income gains) got me thinking:

I'm actually pretty cautious about that number, I would be more interested in the range of the distribution, I think the percent change is being pulled up by all of those physics PhDs who went into finance.

Then again, considering in the that over the past few weeks I've been learning how to automate the collection of data that used to be done by people with masters degrees, maybe PhDs are going to be the ones who automate all of the former undergraduate and masters level work out of existence, keeping the productivity gains for ourselves (conditional on the tax structure). (see also Farhod Manjoo's recent series on this issue in Slate.)

One thing I gleaned from a talk given by the Governor of the California Board of Education last night was that academics largely doesn't even need PhDs (at least at all levels except the very top). You can just have a few PhDs design standardised courses and then have them administered by less trained people. This has already been happening in K-12 education, but it gets even better in higher education, as many for-profits already know.

Since adults will complete their work electronically without as much oversight as children need you can cut out much of the administration. Monitoring instructor performance--assessing how well students are completing the standardised work--can be fully automated and done in real-time.

Conclusion: like in much of the rest of the economy, you have a few highly trained people who organise the system and everyone else just implements it with minimal need for training. The former captures most of the productivity gains.

Implication: do well in school. . . no, not just ok, but very good. Also, do well in something that allows you to design larger processes, rather than just implementing an established routine.

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