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These College Students Are About To See How Robots Are Coming For Our Jobs

Learning how to adapt to automation might be the real 21st century skill

Much of the discourse about public education revolves around the idea of teaching kids “21st century skills” and prepping them for the jobs of the future. Well, students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, will soon get a personal look at the kind of technology that is likely to disrupt their post-graduation employment opportunities.

On Wednesday, the university announced that when students come back to campus in the fall, they’ll be able to ride automated shuttles around its North Campus. Instead of a shuttle with a human driver, students will ride on “two fully-automated, 15-passenger, all-electric shuttles,” according to a statement released by Mcity, an urban test facility on campus.

“This first-ever automated shuttle service on campus is a critical research project that will help us understand the challenges and opportunities presented by this type of mobility service and how people interact with it,” said mechanical engineering professor Huei Peng, the director of Mcity.

Peng means Mcity will use cameras installed on the vans to observe how people react to the technology. Along with gathering data about riders, the cameras will film how pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers respond to automated vehicles. That will be used to “help researchers understand how to design safer vehicles and how to operate them more efficiently,” according to the school.

“The shuttles will augment U-M’s busy campus bus service to provide another mobility option,” said Peng. So they’re not going to be replacing all the human workers—yet. Research by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has found that “currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available today.”

It’s unlikely that students graduating with a diploma from one of the best public universities in the nation are going to be getting jobs driving a shuttle around their alma mater—or any other campus, for that matter. But white-collar jobs aren’t going to be unaffected by the coming changes, either. McKinsey found that as many as two-thirds of jobs in industries such as finance and insurance could be either eliminated or changed by automation and artificial intelligence.

Of course, students at Michigan might not be thinking about all of that this fall while they’re taking the two-mile ride from one point on the shuttle’s route to another. For broke, ramen-noodle-eating college students, all that might actually matter is that the shuttle will be free.

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