The robots are coming: thinking beyond the code

Dr Bruce Addison, Deputy Principal (Academic)

Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defence in President George W. Bush’s administration, coined an interesting prism, perhaps borrowing from thirteenth century Persian Poet Ibn Yamin, through which to view uncertainty and change. He observed, somewhat wryly, that in any given situation there were ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ (Rumsfeld, 2002). In many respects this has always been so. Rumsfeld could have added a fourth category of ‘who could possibly know’ to this range of possibilities. This ‘who could possibly know’ space is in all likelihood a helpful lens through which to appreciate the looming spectre of robotics and artificial intelligence. Predictions associated with robotics and artificial intelligence range from the dire and calamitous through to the relative normalcy of what economist Joseph Schumpeter would describe as ‘creative destruction’, capitalism’s unrelenting mode of self-correction and self-advancement. No matter what the future holds, robots encoded with algorithm-based artificial intelligence will impact significantly on our lives.

Corporate monoliths such as Facebook and Google already operate in this space, monitoring our ‘choices’ assiduously. Our behaviour is observed, coded and eventually fed back as seemingly innocuous prompts. Recent allegations of ‘fake news’ and the supposed manipulation of electoral processes pose a number of disturbing questions about the ever-encroaching reality of algorithm-fuelled online citizenry. It also highlights and confirms the tools of manipulation, motivation and seeming ‘naivety’ of the Chief Executives of these huge corporate monoliths. What we think and the way we think is being reordered for corporate advantage in the pursuit of super normal profit. Using Facebook as an example, Foer (2017) notes:

The big tech companies present themselves as platforms for personal liberties. But we shouldn’t accept Facebook’s self-conception as sincere. Facebook is a carefully managed top-down system, not a robust public square. It mimics some of the patterns of conversation, but that’s a surface trait. In reality, Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information, rules developed by the corporation for the ultimate benefit of the corporation (p. 56).

This dawning reality challenges freedom of thought, one of the most fundamental and treasured aspects of our concept of citizenship.

Not all of this change is confronting. Our quality of life is being enhanced, at least in affluent countries, by the spectre of robotics and artificial intelligence. Dangerous work will disappear as robotics and their encoded modes of decision making become more agile. Surgical procedures will continue to benefit from the precision of robotic dexterity and the spectre of mundane and repetitive work will be consigned to history (Chalmers & Quigley, 2017). There is much to celebrate, just as much as there is cause for concern.

Left unchecked, the tragedy might be that a significant class of underemployed persons could result during this inescapable period of disequilibrium and change. The idea of a ‘meaningless’ job for a ‘meaningful’ life has already all but disappeared, replaced by the unrelenting spectre of unemployment. The pace of change must not be allowed to let the ‘meaningful’ job for a ‘meaningful’ life to disappear also. The result of this would cause social dislocation on an unimaginable scale.

All of this requires amazing skill and foresight by policy makers. It also requires educators to make decisions in their various spheres of influence. In all likelihood, these decisions will be more timely and creative than those crafted by the supposed policy elites, elites who by necessity have to operate in a system increasingly constrained by the notion of 18th century adversarialism as well as a social media environment mesmerised by vaudeville over substance. We must gift our students with the skillsets for effective and proactive citizenship. In this discussion it is absolutely crucial that the economy does not crush the polity — it must be a creative and proactive partnership. A recent report from the Australian Government notes:

The non-linear nature of disruptive technological change will make it challenging to predict the new jobs that will be created, the jobs that will be lost, and the timing of such changes. These trends mean education needs to develop and support both STEM skills and humanities, arts and social science skills such as empathy and creativity (Australia 2030, 13).

We have thought about this very carefully at Girls Grammar. We are ensuring that our emerging 21st century articulation of a broad-based, liberal education caters for the imperatives of STEM as well as the creative genius of the Humanities and the Arts. We are also ensuring that our students will be gifted with the skills of critical analysis — skills absolutely crucial for the creation of informed, activist and empathetic citizenship.

The recent development of our School Wide Pedagogy model has ensured that such criticality and developmentalism is foundational to our approach to both teaching and learning. At the core of our School Wide Pedagogy model is the Cultures of Thinking methodology emanating from Harvard University’s Project Zero. As Dr Ron Ritchhart, Principal Investigator for Harvard Project Zero notes:

 a school that embraces a culture of thinking is one where a group’s collective as well as individual thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the regular, day-to-day experience of all group members (Harvard, 2018).

Dr Ann Farley, our Director of Cross Faculty Initiatives, when thinking about the significance of Cultures of Thinking on her classroom practice has noted:

Cultures of Thinking has made me reflect even more deeply on my practice. It has cemented my view that you can work without thinking but you cannot learn without thinking. It became even more apparent that the more I talked the less my students learned. I knew that I had to be more creative when designing learning experiences that enabled my students to participate as active, more independent and more visible thinkers. Probing questions based on Harvard’s methodology are now becoming routine in my classroom as I seek to understand student responses and reasoning almost as never before (BGGS, 2018).

This is an exciting development. Our response to the emergence of disruptive change has been to embrace carefully a methodologically creative approach to deep thinking. Our students will be members of a polity under stress. Difficult decisions will need to be made. Counter-cultural thinking against the tide of expected thought will be so very important. The ongoing evolution of liberalism is contingent on it. We need to welcome the robots and celebrate their many benefits. All we can do as educators is to embolden our young people with the skills of rudimentary insight and discernment. There will be occasions when future generations will no doubt have to question that the absolutes they have been given just might not be true. All of this resides in the space of the ‘known known’. The challenge for the ongoing development of a decent and fair civil society is an educated populace capable of discerning and fathoming supposed givens.



Australia 2030 Prosperity Through Innovation: A Plan for Australia to Thrive in the Global Innovation Race (2018). Innovation and Science Australia, Australian Government, Canberra.

Chalmers, J. and Quigley, M. (2017). Changing Jobs – The Fair Go in the Age of New Machines. Schwartz: Carlton.

Farley, A. (2018). Cultures of Thinking Action Research Group. Brisbane Girls Grammar School: Brisbane

Foer, F. (2017). World Without Mind – The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Penguin: New York.

Harvard University (2018). Project Zero – Cultures of Thinking. Retrieved from

Donald Rumsfeld Unknown Unknowns !. (2009). YouTube. Retrieved from

Smith, P. (2014). Ibn Yamin: Life and Poems. New Humanity Books: Campbell Creek.