Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable. -Elon Musk
My compatriot, Yosomono, wrote a very timely post five years ago addressing some of the “threats” to teaching English in Japan, essentially the last English Language business bubble in East Asia. While there’s a case to be made that the title should have been The biggest threats for Native English-speaking Westerners Teaching English in Japan, the points about technology possibly replacing those teachers seemed legitimate, and maybe in a sense they still are.
Right now in Japan thousands of English-speaking, western foreigners teach English under the capacity of an ALT or Assistant Language Teacher. The ALTs role in the classroom varies from class to class. Some are just portable tape recorders that the Japanese teacher uses to speak fluent English on command. While on the other side of the spectrum you have ALTs that teach the whole class by themselves while the Japanese teacher sleeps in the back. Whatever the role their days in Japanese classes are numbered. A number of new technologies and trends are threatening to bring the world of the western teacher to an end.
Or, maybe, there’s a new direction to be taken and for those hoping to stay in Japan and continue this kind of work, different strategic approaches need to be implemented. But initially, the state of technology stealing our human jobs because it’s rampant.
The Rise of the Machines
First, it’s become clear that so many part-time jobs, traditionally impossible for machines to perform due to minute complexities which only humans could service are now no problem at all. So, good-bye to all those food based service industry wages. Anything less than a fabulous school trained artisan of a chef is doomed.
Tired of your barista misspelling your name on your morning cup of joe? Perhaps a robot could do better. On Monday, Cafe X opened its very first robotic cafe in San Francisco’s Metreon shopping center. Promising “precision crafted specialty coffee in seconds, the way the roaster intended,” Cafe X thinks that anything a human can do, its machines can do better.
A hot cup of joe served to you by DX-4000; Enjoy. It doesn’t stop there though. All those summer jobs bagging groceries, gone.
In the case of Amazon’s automated retail prototype, a half-dozen workers could staff an average location. A manager’s duties would include signing up customers for the “Amazon Fresh” grocery service. Another worker would restock shelves, and still another two would be stationed at “drive-thru” windows for customers picking up their groceries, fast-food style.
Even Wall Street, that bastion of human goodness and moral rectitude and community, well the machines are running the show there as well.
Throughout most of the 20th century, robot traders would have been a mere figment of the (sci-fi film-influenced) imagination. But now they’re used by over 80 percent of trade markets, including the majority of investment banks and other big institutions, with retail trading remaining one of the only sectors still reliant on human brains. In short, the conventional trader depicted in clichéd Hollywood movies has almost completely died out, and with it the elements of risk-taking and intuition that defined the industry for hundreds of years.
So, as more and more human jobs are lost, and more and more machines employed, is there any silver lining to be found? The answer, for those of you currently teaching, or residing in the right countries, is possibly a big fat YES.
Now, while Yosomono’s assertions are on point in regards to the death of the ALT position: These positions probably won’t go away for the foreseeable future, but the once competitive salaries and benefits will be all but forgotten in the next few years as schools slash Japanese teacher’s bonuses and annual raises in attempts to combat the lagging market for private Junior high school and high school education; less kids equals less business. If Japanese teachers are feeling the pinch, and they are, I assure you, ALTs will feel it more and more as the clock clicks by. However, the jobs will still be here, they just won’t be what they used to be: exclusively for Native Speakers with the right passport, and high-paying.
However, after the Olympics, based on popular time lines for the wide-spread release of smart phone technology, which will facilitate genuine real-time translation, will be widely available, and the spoken language gap in 98%of conversations, will vanish. Japanese to English and English to Japanese will no longer be of any issue what-so-ever and the entire Eikaiwa industry will be rendered useless. The only adults studying will be those at a very high level in very specialized fields, which the standard Eikaiwa teacher isn’t equipped to handle, or those studying for aesthetic reasons: Language acquisition as a hobby with no practical application.
Technology will have cut the English education jobs available in Japan in half.
How Can I Resist my Robot Overlords?
Children and Old People.
Despite the wishes of so many obsessed scientists to develop a machine with actual human empathy, it seems to be something still relegated to the pages of Science Fiction novels. Thank God. It has been established that even in humans, as general Intelligence horse power, or IQ, increases, one’s ability to empathize, or EQ, decreases, often dramatically. Now, apply that equation to super intelligent AI, assuming the model holds.
Why are you crying, Billy?
My mother just died in my arms!
Your tears are useless and futile. Enjoy a cup of coffee.
This is good news for normal people and very good news for those of you interested in keeping relatively “easy” jobs in foreign places you’ve chosen to make home. Also, it’s good news for you young guns out there who want some way to travel and see the world and still get a pay check.
Lets look at those magic words again: Children and Old People
Now, just a little perspective and back story. In 2004 when I got my first ALT job, in order to secure a visa so I could stay in Tokyo and try to make kickboxing dreams come true, 99%, I mean literally everyone I knew, talked to or heard of, hated working with kids. It was looked down on and despised. The Holy Grail, so to speak, went in the following order.
5. ALT at Junior high school position with long paid holidays.
4. ALT at High School with long paid holidays
3. Direct hire full-time teacher at a private Junior High
2. Direct Hire full-time teacher at a private High School
1. Direct Hire Full time teacher at a College/University
Not even on this list, because for many it was better to be unemployed, was working at elementary schools or worse, a kind of special punishment for those many Roppongi/Shibuya nights, working with kindergartens or pre-school kids.
As I said, I thought this too…
…and I was completely wrong.
The ALT jobs will be worth less and less, the Eikaiwa jobs, which already largely suck, will vanish, so what’s left?
Kids. Teaching and caring for kids should be the first destination for Native English speakers who are working, or want to work in Japan. Being Native, having some experience, a handful of credentials and a real desire to work in a small unit and sell, gives you all the tools you need to make as much, if not more, than you made in your previous position.
I did it. Three and a half years ago I opened a very modest little school with a Japanese partner; initially a one room affair with myself managing and teaching everything and zero students. Now, we have several classrooms, four teachers including me, and over 90 students, the majority of those being children.
This is one of the few conventional jobs, which more and more experts seem to agree, will be difficult or impossible for machines to replace. Children require human connection and empathy, not only from their parents, but from the surrounding community. After years of largely ineffective big scale Eikaiwa projects, more and more Japanese parents are becoming interested in small, local and face to face schools which provide a quality product in language acquisition, with a warm, safe and positive environment. Could we set up a robot in the room and run the program for it to drill students on grammatical rules? Yes, and we do! But those are only 25 minute classes, because the students are exhausted and disconnected by that time. I can’t imagine why…
Kids need human connection, not horrific nightmares about their android “teacher” raping them to death.
Seniors are much the same; the older people get the less they seem to give a damn about technology, and in fact, despise it. Yes, There are exceptions, but after children, our next mainstay client base are seniors. Studying language helps prevent cognitive decline and it’s something fresh and different for seniors to enjoy. It also, as with children, offers community, something that being home alone all day can’t provide.
Kids and Old People are the two most open markets that are not vanishing with tech. In fact, as more tech is introduced, human to human contact with these demographics seems more necessary than ever.
Our model isn’t perfect, and we are constantly growing and changing it. But, for those of you who hope to live in Japan, or are here already and feel either worried about your job security, or just unsatisfied in what you’re doing, consider shifting your focus to small, local, privately owned, foreigner owned/managed, child based English language education businesses. It isn’t going anywhere, and looks to have steady growth potential for the foreseeable future.
Until the machines kill all of us, anyway.