Today’s pace of technological change is staggering, with the speed of current breakthroughs having no historical precedent. The coming interplay of  artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things (IoT), nanotechnology, and more will make the once unthinkable possible.

The coming “Fourth Industrial Revolution” will systemically shift the way we live, work, and connect to and with one another around the globe. It will affect the very essence of the way humans experience the world. Although the early 2000s brought with them significant change in how we utilize technology to interact with the world around us, the coming transformational change will be unlike anything mankind has ever experienced. 

Are Your Students Prepared?

The coming Fourth Industrial Revolution—an era that we are racing to as a society—is in its infancy, but is growing exponentially. Advances in technology are disrupting almost every industry in almost every country. No longer do geographic borders significantly reduce the acceleration of change. Take a moment to consider the digital disruption that has already occurred in the following industries, according to Sandy Carter, IBM’s leading executive for startups:

  • The largest taxi company owns no human-driven taxis. (Uber)
  • The largest accommodations provider owns no real estate. (AirBnB)
  • The most valuable retailer has no inventory. (Alibaba)
  • The most popular media platform creates no content. (Facebook)
  • The largest movie house owns no cinemas. (Netflix)

With such change, in some industries the number of people needed is being reduced-and by drastic numbers. In 2015, a Chinese firm specializing in precision technology opened the first unmanned factory, where all processes are operated by computer-controlled robots, machining equipment, unmanned transport trucks, and automated warehouse equipment. 

Humans no longer labor in long lines in the factory. A task that required 650 people a few months ago today takes only three employees (to monitor the lines and system control unit). Production reviews indicate that these robots are making far more and far better products than their human counterparts did. Data at the factory shows that since the robots’ first day on the job, the defect rate of products has dropped from more than 25 percent to less than 5 percent, and production capacity has risen from more than 8,000 units per person per month to more than 21,000 units.

These robots need no coffee in the morning, no breaks, no paid time off, no stopping to go to the bathroom, no vacation time, and they’ll never call in sick. Plus, these machines will never ask for a raise and, unlike people, they will get better and cheaper over time. Our traditional system cannot compete under these automated, global conditions.

Cheaper, Faster, Better Is Just the Beginning

Today we take our first steps into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, created by the fusion of technologies that overlap physical, biological, and digital ecosystems. Known to some as “Industry 4.0,” these possibilities are defined by McKinsey & Company as “the next phase in the digitization of the manufacturing sector, driven by four disruptions: the astonishing rise in data volumes, computational power, and connectivity, especially new low-power wide-area networks; the emergence of analytics and business-intelligence capabilities; new forms of human-machine interaction, such as touch interfaces and augmented-reality systems; and improvements in transferring digital instructions to the physical world, such as advanced robotics and 3-D printing.” Such systems of automation enable intelligence to monitor the physical world, replicate it virtually, and make decisions about the process moving forward. In essence, machines now have the ability to think, problem solve, and make critical decisions. 

Sizing Up Economic Indicators

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. In fact, you’re already benefiting from such advances in technology. From artificial intelligence to self-driving cars to automated home systems, the seeds of this new, automated, global revolution are already planted and starting to grow.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 report “AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs,” 48 percent of experts surveyed believe that robots and other advances in technology will displace a significant number of both blue- and white-collar workers in the coming years. These experts also went on to predict that robots and “digital agents” will begin to displace more jobs than they create by 2025. Similarly, in the 2016 Economic Report of the President, White House economists forecast an 83 percent chance that workers earning less than $20 per hour would lose their jobs to robots. What instructional practices promote jobs that earn less than this $20-an-hour benchmark? 

These same economists also estimate that those who earn up to $40 an hour face a 31 percent chance of being replaced, while higher-wage earners (those earning more than $40 hourly) have a much smaller chance of replacement, with estimates being as low as 4 percent. What instructional practices and authentic experiences unlock doors for students to be prepared for these types of jobs?

Some continue to believe these shifts are decades away. Others believe these changes are coming quickly. Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, predicts that AI will equal human intelligence by 2029. Along similar lines, a 2016 report from The World Economic Forum calculated that by 2020, the technological changes that are underway will likely remove the need for 7.1 million jobs around the world, with only 2.1 million jobs being replaced in the process.

Released in 2014, the Employment Projections Program of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that by 2024, increases in job growth would occur in positions such as software developers (18.8 percent), computer systems analysts (20.9 percent), and market research analysts (18.6 percent), showing that those with the ability to utilize data and those with an analytical skill set would be in demand in the coming years. 

Another area of predicted increase? Health care. Occupations with the most projected growth include personal care aides (25.9 percent), home health aides (38.1 percent), and medical assistants (23.5 percent), which shows the long-term value in social interactions and relationships globally. 

What About Gaps? 

How are our schools preparing students for the types of jobs that will exist in this global workforce?

One must wonder what happens to the gaps in already-existing inequalities as high-skilled, high-wage earners continue to flourish in the new economy, while those who are low-skilled become even less employable. 

The key to future work sustainability, according to the White House in the economists’ 2016 report to Congress, revolves around maintaining a “robust training and education agenda.” To combat the impending wave of low-skilled job removal, we must develop and empower a generation of innovators who create new industries and companies and unleash their genius to find new cures and solutions to tomorrow’s global problems.

Today’s generation of students, regardless of the ZIP code they call home, both need and deserve greater opportunities than the traditional education structure has previously afforded them. This isn’t simply an educational issue to debate, but an economic issue that will have a lasting impact on generations to come. The future stability of our nation depends on the education choices we make today.

Eric Sheninger is a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Thomas Murray is the director of innovation at Future Ready Schools, a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education. Their new book to support school leaders will be published by ASCD in 2017.